Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric, published in 2014 by Minneapolis’ Graywolf Press, is regarded as one of this decade’s most important texts on race. The first poetry book ever to make the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, Citizen details a litany of microaggressions: seemingly minor actions or comments that reveal biases against, in this case, people of color.
Playwright Stephen Sachs turned Citizen into the script for a multi-actor show that was first staged in 2015 in Los Angeles. A new production by Frank Theatre is now being presented at Intermedia Arts, which proves an ideal space for this powerful piece.
The theater’s rear wall is used for continuous large-scale projections, designed by Bill Cottman. The images alternately set the scene, display text, and show evidence of what Rankine was writing about as the show’s focus shifts from everyday life to the heights of achievement and the depths of injustice.
Instead of conventional dialogue, passages from the book are voiced by six diverse actors (Heather Bunch, Hope Cervantes, Michael Hanna, Theo Langason, Joe Nathan Thomas, and Dana Thompson), who alternate phrases and sentences as they move about the stage, which is bare except for six chairs used as props.
Under the dexterous direction of Wendy Knox, the approach respects the spirit of Rankine’s book while adding the physicality and immediacy of live theater. It’s a gut punch to watch the white actors recoil from sitting next to people of color and to hear racist comments spoken out loud.
The adaptation is particularly acute when it comes to Rankine’s extended consideration of the triumphs and travails of Serena Williams. An athlete of historic achievements, Williams has been plagued by mockery and unfair treatment — much of which we watch on video as the actors deliver Rankine’s lacerating critique of a commenter who accuses Williams of harboring “stubbornness and a grudge” when she boycotts a venue where she was subjected to racial slurs.
Like the book, the play draws a line directly from microaggressions to the actions of law enforcement officers whose racial biases have lethal results. “You are not the guy,” repeat the actors as they circle the stage in a menacing swirl, “and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.”
The production moves fleetly without ever feeling blithe or cursory. The actors — particularly Cervantes and Thomas — find poignant gravity while hewing closely to Rankine’s concisely eloquent, even dry voice. With the exception of some posturing by Bunch that crosses a line into villainous caricature, nothing is overripe or melodramatic: It doesn’t need to be. The simple truth speaks, painfully and urgently, for itself.
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