by Josh Gershick
Citizen: An American Lyric, the play, takes its title and text from a book of prose poetry by Claudia Rankine, finalist for 2014 National Book Award in Poetry and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, among other plaudits. Writing in the New York Times last June, after six black women and three black men were shot to death by a self-avowed white supremacist at a Bible-study meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, Ms. Rankine said, “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black .”
The play – “a fast-moving collage of colliding events, fragments, vignettes and streams of consciousness”-is deeply compelling. Here, a chat with Stephen Sachs, co-artistic director of the Fountain Theatre and the playwright who brought Citizen to the stage.
JOSH GERSHICK: Citizen is a beautiful piece of theatre, addressing persistent racism head on. Talk about theatre’s (and this play’s) ability to move, transform, agitate and uplift an audience.
STEPHEN SACHS: In 2014, when Claudia’s book was being published, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO. I had been looking for a theatre protect that would add a unique voice to the national conversation about race in America. Racism is embedded in the fabric of our country and its founding.
We may all be created equal, but we certainly are not perceived that way by each other. I wanted to make a statement that would open the eyes, minds and hearts of audiences in unexpected ways. Quite by accident, I was caught by a review of Citizen in a national newspaper. The title immediately grabbed me. When I actually got the book, it flashed in my mind that this was the voice I was looking for. What makes the book-and the theatre piece – unique is that they expose and illuminate the sometimes unintended and unconscious acts of everyday racism. Subtle, insidious, soul crushing-the little murders we commit daily. Micro-aggressions between friends and co-workers at the market, in the office and on the subway. What we say, how we think, what we do. White privilege and dominance have been so deeply [ingrained] in this country. The play makes you see it, feel it, and think about it. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do?
JOSH GERSHICK: You’ve said you’d like theatre-goers to come away with a new awareness of how they themselves might perpetuate racism. A white theatre-goer cannot, in my view, see this piece without confronting his or her own attitudes: ideas. But what is the takeaway for audiences of color, who are on the receiving end of racism?
STEPHEN SACHS: A dramatization of white dominance. A truth-telling. We had a full mix of white and black audience members throughout the run at the Fountain Theatre. Black patrons had a wide range of reactions to the play: the laughter of recognition, gasps, silence, tears. The unease of, “I can’t believe you’re really saying that,” and the delight of “I’m so glad you are.” And because it’s all about exposing and revealing hidden (and not so hidden) racism, the piece carries the call of giving voice and speaking out.
JOSH GERSHICK: The run was clearly a success. (Mazel Tov on your Stage Raw Award!) What’s next for the play?
STEPHEN SACHS: The play now is beginning its future life around the country. I’m proud that Citizen is being performed in Charleston this June, in a theatre just four blocks away from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, to mark the one-year anniversary of the shooting there. On June 17, when we reflect on that national tragedy, the play will be there. This is deeply meaningful to me. This is why we do what we do. This is who we are. A New York production is also in the works.
JOSH GERSHICK: I think of LA theatre, 99-seat theatre, as an incubator, a cradle, a hothouse and a glorious lab for bringing forth new, compelling work-Citizen, for example and revisiting work that remains seldom produced, such as the work of Alice Childress. What percentage of new work launched at the Fountain Theatre goes on to regional stages and to NY?
STEPHEN SACHS: The Fountain Theatre is a home for artists and audiences to gather together in an intimate setting to share stories that illuminate what it means to be a human being, with the goal that new plays are then seen in theatres across the country and around the world. We may be small in size, but we’re large in heart and dedication and purpose.
Quite a number of new plays created, developed and launched at the Fountain have now been produced across the U.S.and around the world. Sweet Nothing in Ear has been performed around the country and was made into a TV movie starring Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin. What I Heard About Iraq has been performed internationally, winning the Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Our world premiere of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances was produced around the country, then opened Off-Broadway at Primary Stages in NYC, then went overseas to the Edinburgh Festival. Bakersfield Mist, performed in theatres across the country, ran for three months on the West End in London, starring Kathleen Turner, and is now being produced in regional theatres throughout the country and translated into other languages and performed worldwide. The list goes on and on.
JOSH GERSHICK: Recently a New Yorker said to me, “Oh, is there theater in Los Angeles?” True, actors, writers & directors typically make their living here in TV, film & digital platforms, but we have amazing theatre-and most abundantly and energetically, intimate theater.
STEPHEN SACHS: Los Angeles still fights for its right to be called a “theatre town,” even though-and this may surprise you-more theatre is produced in LA than any other city in the world. More than New York or London.And according to a recent report, Los Angeles is also home to more working artists than any other city in the United States. The national profile of theatre in Los Angeles has never been higher. More and more new plays created here are being produced nationwide. Still, the myth is that LA theatre is somehow less serious and that LA actors do theatre only to be seen by casting directors in “the industry,” and not for the art of the work. This simply is not true. It’s a lie. And much of the most satisfying work and the most challenging new plays are being done in LA’s intimate theaters. Larger theaters can no longer afford to take artistic risks, so all that adventurous, artistic energy is humming in the intimate theatre community. The spirit behind it, the force to create, has transformed the cultural landscape of Los Angeles.
Josh Gershick is a playwright, filmmaker and author. This post originally appeared in The Dramatist, the national magazine for The Dramatist Guild.