Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric,” a series of prose poems on the manifold ways racism manifests itself in contemporary society and burrows into black consciousness, glides down its own lyrical path with beguiling confidence.
The collection, which includes meditations on tennis champion Serena Williams’ body, the abandonment of poor communities during Hurricane Katrina and the high-profile deaths of innocent black men, has a built-in theatrical dimension with its chorus of anecdotal voices and its inclusion of what are called “scripts for Situation videos.”
Staging the book, as the Fountain Theatre has done, seems a completely natural thing to do. This version of “Citizen: An American Lyric,” adapted (edited, really) by Stephen Sachs, doesn’t represent a transformation into dramatic literature, but it’s a stirring tribute to an American poet who deserves a wider readership.
More important, the production provides an opportunity to communally address what is behind the onslaught of tragic headlines involving black Americans. Rankine distills her interpretation into three short, cutting lines: “because white men can’t/ police their imagination/ black men are dying.”
The production, directed by Shirley Jo Finney, who had great success staging the first two parts of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Brother/Sister” trilogy at the Fountain, features a cast of six. The actors — four of whom are black, two white — enact everyday racial slights along with more deadly assaults.
The smaller incidents may be more revelatory. A woman can’t stop remembering the time her close friend called her the name of her black housekeeper. A white neighbor calls the police when she sees a black man hanging outside her friend’s house, only to apologize abjectly to the friend when she learns he was an invited guest. A white woman complains to a black woman on a campus visit that affirmative action kept her son from attending the college. A psychologist who specializes in trauma and works from home freaks out when she sees a new black patient entering her property.
For Rankine, racism is a form of trauma, an experience too overwhelming to be responded to immediately. It is a wound that is repeatedly inflicted on the mind, shattering coherence and returning as a series of ghostly sorrows, second thoughts and unspent rages. Hyper-vigilance, the trauma victim’s exhausting defense, exacts a heavy toll. Healing seems to involve repairing the breach between what Rankine (borrowing from a friend) calls the “historical self” and the “self self.”
The staging takes its cue from a line by Zora Neale Hurston that’s invoked on multiple occasions: “I feel most colored when thrown against a white background.” To throw this “otherness” into relief, scenic and video designer Yee Eun Nam employs a sterile white set arrayed with a few director’s chairs against a mostly subdued multimedia backdrop. (This aesthetic starkness reflects the attractive design of the book by Graywolf Press.)
The performers are clearly deeply committed to Rankine’s writing, but they approach the work with the emotional gratitude of readers. Through their flowing tears, which seem to belong more to the actors than the characters, they reveal what “Citizen” means to them. But they sometimes lose sight of the ruminative voice processing these experiences in language.
“Poetry,” Wordsworth observed, “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” “Tranquillity” doesn’t seem quite right for Rankine, who turns to writing because her heart and mind are so unsettled. But she carefully places her aching discord into larger frameworks, and by doing so hurts us into thinking.
This staging of “Citizen” would be more affecting with more austerity. But it is always engaging, and its accessibility should garner this exceptionally timely and occasionally difficult writer a new audience.
Since seeing the work on Saturday, I have been mulling over its truths, quarreling with some of them, mourning others, often at ungodly hours of the night when momentarily awakened by a dream. The work, in short, has gotten under my skin, which is a testament to its power.
‘Citizen: An American Lyric’
Where: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays. Ends Sept. 14.
Info: (323) 663-1525, www.FountainTheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes