In “Citizen,” the BA Mainstage Reckons With Race

Scene from "Citizen: An American Lyric." Photo courtesy of Merlixse Ventura, SUNY Purchase Open Forum.

by Simone Ritchie

So frequently when discussing race, we reach for words we know won’t offend. Terms like “microaggression” and “white privilege” have rightfully earned their place in the lexicon used when having these touch and go conversations. Whether taking place in a classroom or at the Thanksgiving dinner table, these dialogues are normally left as just that, dialogues. Racism turns into a heady concept and those having the discussion (notably fair-skinned folk speaking in hypotheticals) leave feeling as though they’ve placed themselves in another’s shoes because they’ve thought about what it must be like to experience prejudice.

In Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric,” fear of offense is left in the rear view mirror. A kiss-off to sensitivity, “Citizen” shows, doesn’t tell, what it’s like to exist as a black American, whether its passengers are buckled up for the ride or not.

Presented in the Humanities Theater over the first two weekends in November, “Citizen” gleans a great deal, if not most of its material from Rankine’s book of the same name. Presented in vignettes, an ensemble cast (Lex Alston, Autumn Blazon-Brown, Billy Cosgrove, Nadia Duncan, Charlie Gonzalez, Demetrius McCray, Cole Ortiz-Mackes, Lorena Peralta, Calliope Pina-Parker, Perry Pollard, Marjorie Prophete, Thalia Sablon, Merlixse Ventura) creates multiple locations where racism happens. We’ve been to some of these places before: the tennis courts of the U.S. Open, where extreme double standards are placed on champion Serena Williams, or the rooftops of flooded houses in New Orleans, neglected minorities trying to wave down help in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Other spots aren’t as immediately familiar, but the sting of casual racism is still felt by audience members who have been there before, wincing in anticipation as a white woman refers to her black friend as a “nappy headed hoe” only to reassure her companion (and the audience) that what she said “was a joke.”

The thirteen-person cast moves quickly across the stark white stage, climbing stairs and dancing along to Kendrick Lamar with one another on platforms that perch them high above the audience. Movements are punctuated and important words and phrases are said in chorus, not only transforming Rankine’s words from prose to poetry, but also turns the retelling of these moments into moments of solidarity, shouting out to the audience to let them know that racial profiling and the police brutality experienced by people of color is not, and should not, be normal.

It’s a shame that the performances don’t spark as much as the script and director Whitney White’s imaginative staging. Actors deliver heavy monologues with either too much gravitas or none at all. There are definitely moments of clarity and performances that stand out – one worth noting is that of Thalia Sablon, referred to as “Citizen 2.” Sablon commands the stage, transforming into whoever it is that she’s portraying entirely (all actors wear multiple hats as they navigate different stories). Other powerful performances come from Lex Alston and Charlie Gonzalez, who each deliver heart wrenching monologues about the realities black men face when pulled over by a police officer.

The cast works the best when they’re all working together. Scenes where all of the actors feed off of one another’s energy help buoy them towards the finish line, even if that line is crossed while wiping away some tears. Towards the play’s beginning, Perry Pollard provides a purposefully over-embellished rendition of the national anthem while actors fight over an American flag, eventually ripping it down its middle. Later in the show, as Pollard begins a more somber version of the same song, actors line up across the front of the stage, each taking a knee. In a moment that is all too reflective of our reality, “Citizen” works best when its actors are there together, supporting one another.

As actors line the stage, each one taking a moment to say a few words of remembrance in honor of those lives lost at the hands of police over the past few years, Merlixse Ventura pipes up and says, “Because white men can’t police their emotions, black men are dying.” In this small, potent capsule, “Citizen” says everything it’s been trying to say from the beginning. By waiting until the eleventh hour to drop this bomb, however, the play has done its job. Fearlessly addressing race relations isn’t easy, but after seeing this production, a small glimmer of hope shines for the effort to continue to achieve in the near future.