As hate-based tragedies relentlessly erupt across the country and around our very corner here in Charleston, it remains painfully clear that we need to talk about race. In fact, talking about race continues to assert itself as the crucial, yet confounding inroad to addressing the persistent disconnect. Trickier still is talking about talking about race. But it is only through these shame-soaked, squirm-worthy, wounded and wounding exchanges that we will mine the chasm between black and white in America. Giving proper voice to the seemingly unspeakable is the focus of PURE Theatre’s latest production, Citizen: An American Lyric, the hard-hitting stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s intimate, unflinching prose/poetry book, which takes on this tough subject with transformative candor and clarity. Part of Piccolo Spoleto, the first-rate production features PURE’s core ensemble cast directed by Shirley Jo Finney, who premiered Stephen Sachs’ nimble dramatic reworking last year at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. In the stage adaptation, six actors vigorously weave in and out of Rankine’s words, handing off the lines of a shifting cast of characters, who often direct their reflections to the audience dead-on. At its resonant center is Citizen 1, the engaging Michal S. Johnson in her PURE debut, with equally heartfelt, commendable contributions by the five remaining cast members.
From the daily diminishments that forever nudge open the racial divide to the unfathomable acts that end black lives, the play puts forth the words and deeds that continuously erode trust between black and white friends, acquaintances, colleagues, neighbors or simply two people in line at a checkout counter. The result is a perilously mounting cacophony of slights and slurs, assumptions and misperceptions, and, ultimately, mortal violations.
A white friend greets a black friend, invoking radio host Don Imus’s infamous on-air “nappy headed” offense. A white neighbor calls the police on her black neighbor’s friend in the front yard. A white woman forgoes the sole empty seat on a crowded subway, as it is next to a seat taken by a black man. The swipes continue, some perplexing and others pointed, leaving those on the receiving end in a constant double take, either demanding. “What did you say?” or submerging into a private state of self-recrimination for not speaking up or not letting go. And so these fraught and thoughtless toss-offs gain power and menace, as potential aggression gets teeth, and acts of so-termed “erasure” intensify in a crescendo of ever-higher stakes. These involve racial profiling of a man driving home (with a chorus of actors chanting “And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description”; complete negation, like the hundreds of forgotten victims in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and finally the fatal violence trained on innocents like Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, Walter Scott and the Emanuel Nine.
A particularly potent and revealing scenario involves the 2009 U.S. Open undoing of Serena Williams (the affecting Joy Vandervort-Cobb). Still damaged from a history of bad referee calls, Williams is once again called out, this time for inappropriately placing her foot on the line, a loaded metaphor to be sure. When she explodes under the final, untenable strain of injustice, she is significantly penalized for doing so.
This Williams scene and many others make effective use of the set’s projected backdrop, a Mondrianesque patchwork of screens that display media images and videos, such as the actual footage of the U.S. Open and Wimbledon tournaments played out on stage. Delivering on the intention of Rankine’s book, which is to tell these stories in both word and image, the various screens also project contemporary commentary such as the YouTube videos of artist Jayson Musson in his persona Hennessy Youngman, who gives instructions on how to be a black artist.
After first reading Rankine’s book, I found the experience of the book and the play to be wholly different, and with distinct payoffs. The former offers a more personal, meditative exploration, while the production is a somewhat less solemn space. However, in its place is a communal one, equally compelling for different reasons. After all, there is no safer zone to expose the deep and historic hurts at the heart of our racial disconnect than that offered by the cloak of a darkened theater.
Before wrapping up the writing of this review, I took a break, as I tend to, in order to get a bit of distance. I found myself on my Facebook feed, flooded with respect for the late, great Muhammad Ali. Among the many unadorned truths Ali hit us with was, “Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.” Whether an American among us is dealing a fatal wound, or insistently picking at a scab so that it cannot properly close, identifying the “just plain wrong” is the talk we need to have — both in our overarching philosophies and in the day-to-day.
That calls for continued hard, honest, unapologetic communication, like the truths spoken in this important work at PURE. In addition to the production, PURE is also hosting talkbacks with production members and community leaders. By doing so, the company is achieving what theater has set out to do for millennia. It is offering us a space to come together in a collective gasp, bear witness and heal.