World Stage Premiere of ‘Citizen’ reveals that being black is not the problem

Tina Lifford

Tina Lifford

Actress Tina Lifford Chronicles the Creative Process

by Tina Lifford

It’s too much. It’s too much! I could be talking about Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, the massacre at Emanuel AME Church or the racist incidences of this past week, when African American churches in the South burned to the ground. However, I am not talking about these tragedies, at least not directly.

It’s too much. It’s too much, are lines from a new play that I’m in rehearsals for, about the subtle everyday experiences and burdens of racism that we all perpetrate.

CITIZEN: An American Lyric, written by Claudia Rankine and winner of four awards, will have its World Premiere at the Fountain Theatre, in Hollywood, between August 1 and September 14. I said yes to Stephen Sachs, Co-Artistic Director at the Fountain Theatre, when he called because something inside of me instructed me to jump in. I will be taking you on the journey of exploring racism through the lens of working on this play as an artist, and as an inner fitness trainer focused on emotional healing.

Traditionally, day one of mounting a play begins with the cast doing a table read of the play. The entire creative team gathers around a long table, and the actors read the play out loud. But, in our case, award-winning director Shirley Jo Finney broke with tradition. Her first order of business was to have us talk about racism!

Cast of 'Citizen" have table talk.

Cast of ‘Citizen” have table talk.

For artists, it is a given that when we say “yes” to a project, we are saying yes to exploring our own relationship with the project’s theme. Everyone at the table knew we were signing on to dig into our own racist conditioning. The cast of five black actors and two white ones stepped into the quagmire.

Lisa Pescia

Lisa Pescia

Our conversation traversed the familiar ground of difficult memories and hurt feelings. Then we talked about our reactions to color. I saw the white female cast member, Lisa Pescia, take a deep breath before saying, “I’m from the South, so yes, color is the first thing I see. I don’t believe people when they say they don’t see color. When I meet you, I see if you are black or Jewish or Asian. How can you not?”

Later, in the parking lot, Lisa told me that her heart was racing when she shared. She worried that telling the truth in the company of her black cast mates was politically incorrect.

But in the room, her truth did not alienate. It helped us bond. It opened the conversation and gave everyone permission to be honest. I wondered if this was the first place to start in taking a fresh approach to the well-worn subject of racism.

What each human being wants most of all is the right to share their feelings and be heard and respected. We foster connection with others when we enter encounters with openness and respect instead of with judgment or fear.

Lisa Pescia, Tina Lifford, Shirley Jo Finney

Lisa Pescia, Tina Lifford, Shirley Jo Finney

If we begin by giving one another the space to share themselves, maybe we’ll wind up bumping into other discoveries along the way. Maybe we’ll realize that how we have felt up until now is a way in which we have learned to feel or been programmed to feel. Maybe when we feel safe enough to talk about how we feel, we’ll discover memories and truths underneath our surface feelings that better explain why we feel as we do.

Discovery of what lives inside empowers our ability to make change. We can’t change what we can’t see. This is one of the core messages in CITIZEN.

A black actor who dropped out of the play the following day due to family obligations made this statement: “Who would want to be black?” My immediate thought was: I would.

Though I don’t always love the behavior of others, I love being black. I don’t really care what label you use — African American, negro, black. You can even call me colored, or change the label a few more times, and it won’t matter to me. I love the creativity, style, resilience and heart of being black. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, and I had a choice, I would come back as a Black-African-American-negro-colored women… however, I might ask for wash-and-go hair to save me from hours in a salon.

I think the idea of a black person loving the fact that they’re African American surprises many other Americans.

This brings me to a concern I have with CITIZEN: An American Lyric. There is the possibility people will walk away from the theater feeling like being black is the worst possible fate. But BEING BLACK IS NOT THE PROBLEM. Racial abuse and bullying are.

The cast of 'Citizen: An American Lyric'.

The cast of ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’.

“Isms” — racism, sexism, elitism — are the abusers and bullies of humanity. Yet, it is the abused who most often have the burden of accounting for an abuser’s bad behavior. The abused make the adjustments necessary to get along with bullies and abusers — ignore or avoid them, walk on eggshells, don’t react and don’t take them personally. But our emotional makeup as humans means it’s hard not to internalize systematic abuse. Victims spend years working through the emotional wounds that result.

Provocateurs don’t get thrown into the spotlight. Bullies aren’t asked to take responsibility for their emotional violence and the loss or years of recovery they cause. Soccer champion Zinedine Zidane in an interview, after being expelled from the 2006 World Cup Final for head-butting a bully from the opposing team, eloquently says, “The culprit is the one who provokes… This must be acknowledged.” This Zidane incident is one of the vignettes that bring the stage story of CITIZEN to life.

If you have ever tried to distance yourself from a painful emotional memory, you know that getting over it and moving on usually takes a lifetime. Physical rape is finally seen for the violent, life-altering crime that it is. What will it take to make the premeditated emotional rape of one’s dignity a crime?

I hope that people who see the stage production of CITIZEN, or who read the book, don’t walk away feeling sorry for black people. Instead, I hope we will begin to see bullying and emotional abuse as violent criminal acts. Then we can hold bullies and abusers — of all races, in all walks of life and behind all closed doors — accountable.

Tina Lifford is an actress and founder of The Inner Fitness Project. Follow Tina on Twitter and Facebook

Citizen: An American Lyric opens at the Fountain Theatre  August 1st. More Info/Get Tickets

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