This Saturday on Saturday Matinees, we’ll be joined by award winning playwright and poet Kit Yan, whose musical Interstate won “Best Lyrics” at the 2018 New York Musical Theatre Festival. Born in Enping, China, Yan’s family immigrated to Hawaii where they were raised. Yan describes their work as “a dream space where I witness, remember, and reflect on my queer and trans herstories.” I met Yan at the Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis where they were beginning their residency as a 2020 fellow. I was charmed by their warmth, and flattered by their generous support of my work. Since then, I’ve remained intrigued by their uniquely vibrant work – a combination of ancestral reverence, queer pride, and lots of pop culture fun. In this interview, we talk about inspirations, cultural traditions, and our shared love of aerobics.
France-Luce Benson – What were some of your favorite musicals growing up?
Kit Yan. – I love Disney lol.
Was there one in particular that left an imprint on you?
I love In the Heights. I have always felt inspired by family, community, neighborhoods, and relationships.
You say “writing is a spaceship into the borderless ancestral past…” I love that because I feel a strong connection to my ancestors whenever I’m creating. Is this true for you as well?
Absolutely. I carry with me all who have come before and all who are coming ahead in all my work. Writing is a dream space for me, to reimagine, retell, remember, and rewrite time and time again. I am only who I am because of the stories, and work of the ancestors. I never take for granted that I stand on shoulders and that gratefulness holds me accountable to telling stories that matter to me.
In another life I was a step aerobics instructor. I still love Step. So naturally, I’m intrigued by your musical MISS STEP. What was the inspiration?
WTF this is amazing about you! I was taking a step aerobics class in Long Island and getting really into it. It helped me feel free in my body as a trans person. Then Melissa (Yan’s collaborator) and I went down a rabbit hole of watching competitive aerobics for 8 hours straight one night while working on Interstate and just fell in love with it! When we dove deeper, we actually found the world of competitive aerobics to have some problems. There were misogynistic rules and expectations embedded in the rules in this sport that is supposed to be a ground for self- expression and frankly is pretty amazingly gay. So we set out to tell a story about trans people challenging these rules in order to feel free in their bodies and connect to something within themselves.
In your short film TO DO, there is a beautiful shot of the protagonist making an offering of flowers and cookies to the ocean? What is the significance? Is it based on any Asian tradition?
Yes! this is a food offering to the person who has moved onto their next life. I’m a buddhist and grew up with kind of a mish mash of buddhist, doaist, and feng shui practices. When we visit our ancestors’ graves we always bring food to nourish their spirits.
During these last 6 months, what has been keeping you sane?
I have been spending more time outside and in nature than ever before. It has been grounding to witness animals returning to their homes, plants growing in places they did not grow before, and people in relationship to the land in respectful and harmonious ways.
What is bringing you hope?
The above is bringing me hope and all this silence is bringing me hope. People helping other people. Collective work towards safety and wellness.
It was my mother who introduced me to Emily Dickinson.
“I want to show you something,” Mom whispered one afternoon when I was boy, pulling down the thick volume of Dickinson’s poetry wedged on the family bookshelf in the den of our home. She patted the brown Naugahyde sofa, instructing me to sit beside down her.
“Listen to this,” mom smiled, opening the collection of poems, her finger hunting through its pages then hitting her target with a tap. “Here. This one. I will read this poem to you. Tell me what you think the poet is writing about.”
I had no idea. It made no sense to me. I confessed my confusion.
“It’s a train,” my mother smiled. “Emily is picturing how a train glides across the countryside, chugs up a mountain, winds its way downhill, the sound it makes. Now that you know it’s a train, I’ll read it again. You’ll see and hear the train for yourself.”
She read it again. And I saw it. I heard it. And a world opened.
My mother offered more of Emily’s poetry to me. Our routine was the same. Mom would read it aloud, then explain it, then read it again. Each poem was a revelation. My mother unlocking the door to each one. “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” was a snake. “A Route of Evanescence” a hummingbird. Soon, I was yanking the hefty The Complete Poems by Emily Dickinson down from the shelf by myself. Alone in the den. My mother nowhere in sight. Perhaps she washed dishes downstairs in our kitchen or lugged a blue plastic basket of family clothes into the laundry room. I was curled up on the couch in the den clutching Emily, her words launching me like a little boat on journeys inward and outward.
There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take Without oppress of Toll – How frugal is the Chariot That bears the Human Soul –
My mother shared with me her green 1945 first edition of Ancestors’ Brocades, the memoir by Millicent Todd Bingham telling how her own mother, Mabel Loomis Todd, co-edited the first publishing of Dickinson’s poetry, announcing Emily to the world in 1890, four years after her death. Although Mabel Loomis Todd had visited Emily Dickinson’s home for four years by that time, she had never laid eyes on the reclusive poet in person except in her coffin.
Emily’s solitude, her expansive inner life, her monk-like self-ordination to the service of her soul has enthralled me to this day. I am as much enamored of her life as I am of her poetry. To me, they are one and the same.
My mother’s persona was more Donna Reed than Emily Dickinson. Mom was pretty, vivacious, classy. She wore pearls and black heels and Channel No. 5. She gave me her joy, her sense of style and fun. She gave me her intellect, her delight for the arts. She gave me her love and her friendship. She gave me all of herself.
And she gave me Emily.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre
This White House has been, and is likely to remain, home to the first presidency in American history that is almost completely devoid of culture. In the 17 months that Donald Trump has been in office, he has hosted only a few artists of any kind. One was the gun fetishist Ted Nugent. Another was Kid Rock. They went together (and with Sarah Palin). Neither performed.
Since his inauguration in January 2017, there have been no official concerts at the White House (the Reagans had one every few weeks). No poetry readings (the Obamas regularly celebrated young poets). The Carters began a televised series, “In Performance at the White House,” which last aired in 2016, where artists as varied as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Patricia McBride performed in the East Room. The Clintons continued the series with Aretha Franklin and B. B. King, Alison Krauss and Linda Ronstadt.
But aside from occasional performances by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, the White House is now virtually free of music. Never have we had a president not just indifferent to the arts, but actively oppositional to artists. Mr. Trump disparaged the play “Hamilton” and a few weeks later attacked Meryl Streep. He has said he does not have time to read books (“I read passages, I read areas, I read chapters”). Outside of recommending books by his acolytes, Mr. Trump has tweeted about only one work of literature since the beginning of his presidency: Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury.” It was not an endorsement.
Every great civilization has fostered great art, while authoritarian regimes customarily see artists as either nuisances, enemies of the state or tools for the creation of propaganda. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev asserted that “the highest duty of the Soviet writer, artist and composer, of every creative worker” is to “fight for the triumph of the ideas of Marxism-Leninism.”
When John Kennedy took office, his policies reacted against both the Soviet Union’s approach to the arts and that of Joseph McCarthy, who had worked hard to create in the United States an atmosphere where artists were required to be allegiant and where dissent was called treason. Pivoting hard, Kennedy’s White House made support of the avant-garde a priority. The artists Franz Kline and Mark Rothko came to the inauguration, and at a state dinner for France’s minister of cultural affairs, André Malraux, the guests included Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Robert Lowell, Geraldine Page and George Balanchine. Kennedy gave the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, who had exiled himself to France and then Puerto Rico to protest Franco’s fascism, a forum in the East Room. Casals had performed in the White House once before, at the young age of 27. Now 84, and a man without a country, he played a mournful version of “The Song of the Birds.”
Pablo Casals at the Kennedy White House.
It’s crucial to note that the White House’s support of the arts has never been partisan. No matter their political differences, presidents and artists have been able to find common ground in the celebration of American art and in the artists’ respect for the office of the presidency. This mutual respect, even if measured, made for the occasional odd photo-op. George H. W. Bush met Michael Jackson, who wore faux-military garb, including two medals he seemed to have given himself. Richard Nixon heartily shook the hand of Elvis Presley, whose jacket hung over his shoulders like a cape.
George W. Bush widened the partisan rift, but culturally, Mr. Bush — the future figurative painter — was open-minded and active. He met Bono in the Oval Office. He hosted a wide range of musicians, from Itzhak Perlman to Destiny’s Child. He was an avid reader — he maintained a long-running contest with Karl Rove to see who could read more books in a year. Laura Bush has long been a crucial figure in the book world, having co-founded the Texas Book Festival and the National Book Festival in Washington, now one of the country’s largest literary gatherings.
But perhaps no Republican could match the presidency of Ronald Reagan, whose guest list was a relentless celebration of the diversity of American culture. He and Nancy Reagan hosted Lionel Hampton. Then the Statler Brothers. Then Ella Fitzgerald. Then Benny Goodman. Then a night with Beverly Sills, Rudolf Serkin and Ida Levin. That was all in the fall of 1981. The Reagans did much to highlight uniquely American forms, especially jazz. One night in 1982, the White House hosted Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea and Stan Getz. When Reagan visited Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1988, he brought along the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
But that kind of thing is inconceivable now. Admittedly, at a time when Mr. Trump’s policies have forcibly separated children from their asylum-seeking parents — taking the most vulnerable children from the most vulnerable adults — the White House’s attitude toward the arts seems relatively unimportant. But with art comes empathy. It allows us to look through someone else’s eyes and know their strivings and struggles. It expands the moral imagination and makes it impossible to accept the dehumanization of others. When we are without art, we are a diminished people — myopic, unlearned and cruel.
Darius R. Booker, Morgan Camper, and Derek Jackson in “Gunshot Medley”
by Dionna Michelle Daniel
“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
This sentence has stuck with me since the first time I read Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric. That sentence has been a jumping-off point and inspiration for the current play that I am currently developing.
I first encountered Claudia Rankine’s Citizen while a BFA at the California Institute of the Arts. That year, I was taking a class on hybrid writing with a bunch of MFA creative writers. Although I felt slightly out of place from my comfort of theater knowledge, I was determined to get my minor in creative writing. Even though Rankine’s Citizen functions as a hybrid text, at the time it wasn’t on the course reading materials. However, that didn’t stop it from being spoken about almost every other class. This was also around the time when there were the headlines of the black woman reading Citizen at a Trump rally. In the video, you see angry Trump supporters tap the woman on the shoulder, signaling that it is rude for her to not be complicit in Trump’s nonsense. It is rude for her to read. The woman’s response is one of the most epic things you will every see. She shrugs of the bitter rally attendees and continues to read her book. From that point on, it was clear to me that this book was a symbol of resistance and strength. I had to get my hands on a copy.
It’s funny how life happens. I began working at the Fountain Theatre in the Fall of 2017 and had no idea that Stephen Sachs had adapted a stage adaptation of the book. As a fan of this brilliant book and also a theatre nerd, I was excited to see this work brought to life and inhabited in the bodies of actors. I got my chance to see the performance at Grand Park on April 29th and needless to say, I was beyond moved. There is something about hearing those words spoken and coming from a black body that makes the text sink in that much deeper. The actors, all giving a beautiful performance, showed the pain & confusion that happens when constantly faced with microaggressions and systemic oppression. And when the lines, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” were spoken, I was overwhelmed by the weight of this sentence. Felt the weight right in my chest.
This message of this book and the stage adaptation correlates to the work that I am trying to flesh out in my own writing. Currently, I am developing a Part 2 to my play Gunshot Medley. The second part will take place in the present day and I’ m most interested in the idea of what happens to the black psyche after being faced with the trauma of seeing so many killings of black men on our phone screens. When does it stop? When can we heal? And if we look at the black body as a vessel, how much can it hold before it snaps and breaks?
Dionna Michelle Daniel is the Outreach Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre
The Fountain Theatre’s critically acclaimed, award-winning stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric has been chosen as the centerpiece ofOur L.A. Voices, a new festival celebrating the diversity and excellence of the arts in Los Angeles that will launch April 27-29 at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles. A compelling play about racism in America, Citizen will represent excellence in Los Angeles theater at the multi-arts festival, with performances set for Friday, April 27 and Saturday, April 28. All performances are free to the public.
Citizen: An American Lyric was adapted for the stage by acclaimed playwright and Fountain co-artistic director Stephen Sachs from Rankine’s National Book Critics Circle award-winning book of poetry. In this intensely provocative and unapologetic rumination on racial aggression directed by Shirley Jo Finney, seemingly everyday acts of racism are scrutinized as part of an uncompromising testimony of “living while Black” in America — from the shooting of Trayvon Martin, to the tennis career of Serena Williams to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Actress Monnae Michael invites you to join her and fellow cast members — Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burke, Tony Maggio, Adenrele Ojo and Lisa Pescia — to enjoy what Stage Raw critic Myron Meisel called “a transcendent theatrical experience.”
Lisa Pescia, Leith Burke, Bernard K. Addison, Monnae Michaell, Tony Maggio in The Fountain Theatre production of “Citizen: An American Lyric” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
The journey of veteran director Shirley Jo Finney to the Kirk Douglas Theatre’s Block Party with The Fountain Theatre’s Citizen: An American Lyric began two and a half years ago, when Fountain co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs called to ask her if she had read Claudia Rankine’s New York Times bestseller Citizen. Or maybe it began in 1997, when Finney directed her first of eight works at the Fountain. Or perhaps decades earlier when, as a recent MFA graduate of UCLA, Finney participated in Center Theatre Group’s New Work Festival at the Mark Taper Forum. Or really long before that, when Finney grew up in a segregated neighborhood and attended all-white schools where she was the only person of color.
In 2015, Sachs told Finney he was considering adapting Citizen for the stage, and that she was the right director for the project. “I read it, and I went, ‘Oh, this is my life,'” said Finney, recognizing her own experiences of “walking through and navigating those torrential waters of mainstream America when you are a person of color or ‘other,’ and what you have to swallow in order to survive.”
Citizen premiered at the Fountain in August 2015; last summer, Finney directed it again at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, just one year after the city was devastated by a deadly assault that took the lives of nine African-Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Every performance was followed by a discussion with the audience. “We felt it was necessary while that community was still healing and that wound was oozing,” said Finney.
There will also be Stage & Audience Talks after every performance at the Douglas, where Citizen is onstage April 28 – May 7, 2017. Citizen touched audiences deeply in Los Angeles in 2015, but much has changed since then—for the cast and crew and for the audience.
Shirley Jo Finney
“As human beings we’ve been living our lives…we all evolve,” said Finney of herself and the company. “At the same time, in those two years, there has been a transformation in the collective. I’m interested to see, now, how it’s going to land with our audiences. Because what was maybe specific to a tribe has now expanded…something has been awakened, because ‘the other,’ now, is everyone.” The election, said Finney, “fractured what our belief system is about being an American and being a citizen, and what that culpability and responsibility is.” She added, “Not only do you have to say, ‘What does it mean to be a citizen?’ But also, ‘What does it mean to be a human being?'”
The re-staging at the Douglas offers an opportunity for the show to make a bigger impact in other ways as well. “My designer is excited because we have the height now onstage that we didn’t have in the [Fountain]. Our projections are going to have the impact that we wanted to have,” said Finney.
“I think it’s a healing piece with a historical narrative, and we need it at this point in time,” she concluded. “When you look at what we need as human beings, the three things, if you cut everything away, are: we need to be seen, we need to feel nurtured, and we need to feel safe. Citizen, I think, makes us aware and opens that space for that healing to begin.”
Citizen: An American Lyric is now playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre to May 7th.
Center Theatre Group‘s Block Party continues with the opening of The Fountain Theatre production of “Citizen: An American Lyric” this Sunday, April 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Based on a book of poetry by Claudia Rankine, adapted for the stage by Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs and directed by Shirley Jo Finney, “Citizen: An American Lyric” will begin previews tonight April 28 and continue for 11 performances only through May 7, 2017.
Block Party highlights some of the remarkable work being done in other, more intimate theatres throughout Los Angeles by fully producing three previously staged productions. The three productions receive the full support of Center Theatre Group and its staff in order to fund, stage and market each production. Block Party began with the Coeurage Theatre production of “Failure: A Love Story” April 14 through 23 and will continue with The Echo Theater Company’s production of “Dry Land” running May 12 through 21.
“Citizen: An American Lyric” fuses poetry, prose, movement, music and the video image in a provocative stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s internationally acclaimed book of poetry about everyday acts of racism in America. Of Rankine’s “Citizen,” The New Yorker wrote that it was “brilliant… [and] explores the kinds of injustice that thrive when the illusion of justice is perfected.” The New York Times wrote that “Rankine brilliantly pushes poetry’s forms to disarm readers and circumvent our carefully constructed defense mechanisms against the hint of possibly being racist ourselves.”
The cast of “Citizen: An American Lyric” includes Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burke, Tony Maggio, Monnae Michaell, Simone Missick and Lisa Pescia. Scenic and projection design is by Yee Eun Nam, costume design is by Naila Aladdin-Sanders, lighting design is by Pablo Santiago and original music and sound design is by Peter Bayne. Anastasia Coon is the movement director and Shawna Voragen is the production stage manager.
Audiences are also invited to engage in discussion with the “Citizen” cast and company following each performance during moderated Stage Talks. There will be no Stage Talk held on opening night.
‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre
by Carolyn Kellogg
Poet Claudia Rankine was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship grant for her work that engages with contemporary American culture, particularly issues of race. Her most recent book, 2014’s “Citizen,” racked up stacks of awards for its searing take on the personal and political, including the death of Trayvon Martin. Rankine, who taught for many years at Pomona College, is now on the faculty at Yale University. We talked to her about the MacArthur grant and what it means for her work.
What was it like hearing about the award?
It’s very exciting, very surprising, which makes it more exciting.
I’m in my mid-50s. This is an incredible honor, but I’ve been lucky enough to get my work done with or without it. So I feel like having this award given to me at this point in my career, I think in my own imagination, what else? It makes me want to do even more in terms of the subject of my work.
The subject of “Citizen” is, in part, the death of black men in America. And that subject is renewed again as we’re talking. I wonder if you could address that.
To me, the getting of this honor is a kind of recognition, obviously a monetary recognition, which is helpful. But it’s also for me the culture saying: We have an investment in dismantling white dominance in our culture. If you’re trying to do that, we’re going to help you. And that, to me, is encouraging. The MacArthur is given to my subject through me. The subject of trying to change the discourse of black people being equated with criminality and murdered inside a culture where white fear has justified the continued incarceration, murder of blacks and other people of color. I do feel like I am just incidental in a certain way to the prize, and that the prize is being given to the subject — that I am completely invested in.
Claudia Rankine at Fountain Theatre
Could you talk about your ongoing creative project?
Before I was notified about the MacArthur I had been in the process of putting together with Casey Llewellyn, and a number of writers and artists, the Racial Imaginary Institute. Which for us is an interdisciplinary arts and cultural laboratory for the dismantling of white dominance. One of the things I think the culture needs is an actual location where writers and artists and thinkers can come together and put pressure on the language that makes apparent white supremacy and white dominance. I think a lot of us are working separately on these subjects, but it would be nice to have a Racial Imaginary Institute that really has as its goal the dismantling of white supremacy. That each of us can go at it inside of our fields. If you’re a writer, you have the benefit of talking to other artists who are interested in the subject. What are we missing? What isn’t getting said? What are the narratives of white greatness that disallow other things to be brought to the surface? I’m very excited about the creation of the institute, the making of the space, the notion that culturally we’ll know where to go to have these discussions, to actively look at the absences and the erasures around the construction of race, especially the construction of whiteness in America.
Where will it be?
Right now we’re looking for a space, but I assume it will be in New York City. Right now we exist as people with a mission and a name. And with work [the essay collection “The Racial Imaginary” was published by Fence Books in 2015].
When you heard about this award, did you think, I’m buying an island and we’ll have our institute!
No, I think that it’s the kind of thing we’ll have to work toward getting funding for. Not even the MacArthur money can put something into the world like that. I really believe that the culture can change the way we think. Right now we have a media culture, television culture, pop culture that still moves forward on many assumptions around whiteness that we all know to be erroneous and hurtful. I think that this institute could begin to make products — books, give talks, present readings, make art — that shifts the understanding into a place that reflects an actual reality rather than the constructed realities around whiteness.
Tell me a little about the aesthetics underlying your work.
Stephen Sachs, Claudia Rankine, Shirley Jo Finney
I’m committed to an interdisciplinary investigation of cultural dynamics. The reason I will forever identify as a poet is because I think poetry is the one genre that privileges feelings. And so no matter what I’m working on, I’m also interested in the impact of the reality with the human psyche. So for me, the work has to bring the reality up against the experience of the reality. And all of my work is how do you get that to be apparent, and apparent in language? The felt experience. For example, right now we know that 60% of African Americans and Latinos live in communities where you have toxic-waste sites. Now that’s a fact. But how do I get that to be a lived experience inside a work of art? That’s the challenge as a writer and as an art-maker. How do you get the piece of art to enact a discussion that feels plausible inside your own living room? Right now I’m working on a play that draws from “Citizen.” The real challenge is how do you bring the kinds of conversations around race that happen at 7 o’clock over the dinner table onto the stage? So that when you go to the theater to see it, you know you’ve had that conversation.
So that there’s a kind of recognition.
There has to be recognition. One has to step into the moment as a lived experience. Even if the circumstances seem foreign, the experience needs to connect as a known realm on the emotional level.
Claudia Rankine has won the 2015 PEN Center USA Literary Award for poetry for her acclaimed book ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’. Our smash hit sold-out stage adaptation of Citizen by Stephen Sachs, directed by Shirley Jo Finney, has earned rave reviews, been hailed as Critic’s Choice in the Los Angeles Times and is extended to October 11.
‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre
The Los Angeles-based PEN Center USA Literary Awards honor work in eleven categories—fiction, creative nonfiction, research nonfiction, poetry, children’s/young adult, graphic literature, translation, journalism (print and NEW online), drama, screenplay, and teleplay—produced or published in 2015 by writers living west of the Mississippi River.
On the American “stage” — within mainstream media and in public discourse — the discussion of race and racism is often defined by spectacle: an event that we can collectively point to that plays out on our screens, large and small. It might be the grievous roll call of black lives cut short by raw acts of violence; or it might take shape in next week’s headlines — a bungled arrest or denial of dignity — that eerily mirrors incidents of three generations ago.
While those high-profile, super-charged moments are indeed odious and shameful, they are indicative of a deeper malady affecting the American psyche, writer Claudia Rankine argues in her most recent book, “Citizen: An American Lyric.”
Often, Rankine notes, these high-profile conflagrations — New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina, the murder of Trayvon Martin — are viewed with confusion or are categorized as aberration by those who don’t move through life with black skin. For those who navigate daily through fraught territory, the belief or assumption that racism is largely “behind us” is both a powerful articulation of privilege and a violent act of erasure.
“Citizen” — Rankine’s keenly alert and incisive collection of poetry, prose and imagery — was named a poetry finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and was the winner of the National Books Critics Circle Award. The text is now finding another life as a stage production at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.
“Citizen” carefully catalogs the ways in which casual racism permeates our day-to-day interactions — both spoken and unspoken; those “Did that really happen?” moments. These are slights, dismissals and elisions that are deeply ingrained. They are reflexive gestures — judgments — enacted upon another: the door that is not held open, the seat that is not occupied, the fumbled or “mistaken” identity. Each slip, each cut, is an obliteration.
While “Citizen” articulates this paradox — this notion of people of color rendered at once invisible and hyper-visible — Rankine’s goal was not to enumerate pain, but to expose and address “white blindness.” If we don’t — or refuse to — see it, we can’t engage in a dialogue to disassemble it. Untended, these quiet, repeated microaggressions, denials of full personhood, continue to be the contaminated roots from which these larger conflagrations grow.
Ultimately, Rankine’s book requires that we dig deeper to understand what it means to be a 21st century “citizen.” We must acknowledge what it takes to build stronger, inclusive and thus more meaningful alliances across racial and cultural lines. What is our collective responsibility? What is it that will help us to move beyond that quasi-magical-thinking wish of “moving on” and rather how to move us all collectively and meaningfully forward.
Rankine is the author of four other books including “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric,” a meditation on death and currently serves as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She recently departed from Pomona College in Claremont to join the faculty at USC and will begin teaching writing workshops and poetics in the English department beginning Fall 2016.
I recently caught up with Claudia Rankine in a wide-ranging discussion on the stage adaptation of “Citizen,” the microaggressions of daily life, and “racial silencing.”
Lynell George: We now have a word for these small moments, the slights — microaggressions — but when you were first encountering these acts in your early years, how did you categorize them? What did you do with them when they landed?
Claudia Rankine: I think the way that I metabolize microaggressions as I was growing up — and I include my 20s and 30s and 40s in my growing up — is that I just listened. I took it in. It wasn’t a situation in which I didn’t hear what was being said. It wasn’t a situation where I was under any kind of misunderstanding around the intent or the source of the statements that were coming at me. I understood them as an assault and I felt them as an assault, but I didn’t respond to them. And that’s part of what drove me to want to write about them.
It’s the sense that there was another thing in play, and even when we know what’s happening, we don’t feel empowered to call it out. And I think we are brought up to be good and have good manners. To not make other people uncomfortable and to understand that by putting our own comfort in the forefront we might create a situation that is uncomfortable. But the consequence is that you carry a lot of stress in your body and all of a sudden your digestive system is given the role of metabolizing it. So I think that I had to grow into the recognition that it was actually okay to feel that my own comfort was worth the attention.
Claudia Rankine signs books at the Fountain Theatre
LG: You’re right, there has been this impulse to be polite — or mask it. As a survival tactic, it seems we have developed these ways to hide our anger, frustration even when we were/are telling people off.
CR: But even that way, that kind of throwing shade with congeniality, I think that even that should be given up, I think that it is okay for us to embrace our anger. There is this great line by Thomas Jefferson where he refers to blacks, where he says, “Their griefs are transient.” So just that idea. What allows the white imagination to even articulate something like that is that sense that they don’t even have to bear the brunt of the stress that is caused by their actions. So I’m interested in the full recognition of someone’s emotional state and having the freedom to live while black. To live fully as a human being without having to recuperate goodness relative to white stereotypes about blackness. That’s the rhetoric.
LG: It’s even embedded in the language of pop culture where black women in particular are viewed as exceptional in their ability to shoulder whatever is thrown their way — “She can handle all of this — anything because she’s ‘fierce.’ To me the power of “Citizen” is that it shifts the power — in italicizing and naming these off-hand moments — the speaker is no longer the victim. There is power in turning the moment around and on its head. Did you feel a power shift as you were writing this?
CR: I don’t know if I felt it as a shift in power. For me the interest was not in exhibiting black pain. We know it exists. I’m black. I wasn’t interested in exhibiting black pain and performing that. It was not at all at the center of the writing. I was more interested in sort of the white liberal imagination insisting they don’t understand why things happen: they don’t understand how Katrina could have happened. They don’t understand how these killings are happening and yet they are the same ones who forget to open the door if you happen to be a black woman. And they are the same ones who refuse to sit next to you if you happen to be a black man. So I am much more interested in looking at that. Looking at white liberalism and the gap in its own recognition of the ways in which it is implicated in the continuance of white supremacist thinking.
LG: I was thinking as I was moving through the book, I could mirror many of these conversations/interactions, but what also becomes clear in “Citizen” is the pervasiveness of this dismissal. It’s another erasure when someone responds, “Well, let me give you an example when that happens to me.” The subtext is: “Well it might not mean what you think…” It’s minimizing and dismissive.
CR: Well, I think there is such anxiety in the white imagination around feeling guilt, implicated — whatever. The refusal is in the looking. And whiteness is not used to looking at itself as invested in certain norms in order to keep a certain positioning. That’s part of the culture. You can’t blame individuals because inasmuch as there is systemic racism there is systemic white privilege and the white privileging. In other words, you’re not even white, you’re just “normal” — and you’re just a “normal” human being — and [so] how you think or feel is actually where the level playing-field begins. So I think white people tend to believe that: Oh if I say, ‘I don’t think about race’ that must be true, because, I’m normal. I’m the norm. And yet they are making decisions based on race all the time.
LG: You mentioned earlier that these incidents themselves made you decide that you wanted to embark on this journey, the writing. What was the seed? How did it begin to take shape?
CR: Different parts of the book happened in different ways, so the incidents that accumulate in the opening were probably the last thing, not the first. And that was probably my moment of anthropology. I mean, I literally called up my friends and asked: Can you tell me a moment when race interrupted something you expected to be without incident? Was there some interaction with a colleague or a friend, when you were just doing something very ordinary, when suddenly the moment of scandal happened — because race was brought into that moment? So once I began to collect those, they just kind of stockpiled.
The others — the situation-text scripts, those came out of actual events. Katrina happened and then I worked on a piece. So it was more like that for those pieces. Those were years in the making. And then the more lyric pieces, I just write those when I write them.
LG: There is a beautiful exploration of the symbolism of Serena Williams on the tennis court — and both how she floats in both the tennis world and the American imagination.
CR: I have always been interested in Serena Williams and Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan in terms of the ways in which racism plays itself out in sports. Especially as a black woman watching this other amazing black woman be treated again and again and again with almost 18th century thinking and rhetoric and the insistence on that was — and is — remarkable. In fact, did you see the piece this morning on Serena? It’s a piece I wrote for the New York Times. It was a really great chance to sit down and organize all of the information I had collected over the years as a fan, basically. I had been watching these things happen and I thought: What happens when you just put them down one after another after another after another after another? So the organization of the essay, replicated the organization of the book in terms of what happens when these moments build. Some of them might not have to do with racism, but it doesn’t matter because there is so much precedence, that it might as well have to do with racism… I think even I was surprised at just how consistently she was assaulted on the court over the years. You know the incidents, but when you begin to see them one after the other and then the other and the other it really is stunning.
Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick and Leith Burke in “Citizen: An American Lyric.”
LG: Yes, and there is the moment in the book where you react for her. You are appalled by all that she has shouldered. She has had to internalize so much and rise above it and win…
CR: If anything that I have learned from Serena Williams is that the way to deal with what is put in front of you is to deal with what is put in front of you and not to be silenced in the face [by] assault by fantasies of good behavior for black people. I think that has silenced us in the past, because one doesn’t want to play into expectations of rageful black bodies — as if something is not causing the rage, as if we are just out there raging away without anyone assaulting us.
LG: Right and by now, you’ve heard about the Black women’s book group being kicked off the Napa Wine Train… I mean really?
CR: Yes, everyone can laugh — but not you…
LG: Even our joy is restricted. You can’t be angry, you can’t laugh. It’s such a small space we’re expected to occupy emotionally…
LG: The book of course has garnered wide attention, won many important prizes, and yet we are in this moment of such a degraded dialogue around race and such soul-crushing race-related violence. It seems for those reaching for your book, that we collectively want to find ways to close that gap and yet this has been such a long stretch of retrograde thought and action around the subject of race.
CR: I think it’s heartening because people are saying: Well, I see that this is a problem too. And it’s not a state that we actually want. I think many Americans, and many white Americans, are distressed with what’s going on and the difference is that whiteness is not used to interrogating whiteness.
I think it’s complicated. I think with many white policeman, there are some who are just really mean and racist and who want the death of black people, and then there are others who have no idea how our [country’s] white supremacist beginnings continue to control their own imagination. They are reacting sincerely to fears that are not located in the body in front of them, but rather in their heads. And I don’t doubt that they would pass lie detector tests if you asked them “Were you afraid of that guy?” But does that mean that the guy did anything to make them fearful?
I think that the interest in the book, is more than an interest in the book, and is an interest in that dynamic. We can see that there is a problem. How, perhaps, we are implicated in that problem is not as easy to see.
LG: This seems like a good moment to slip over to the play and the challenge of staging these complex voicings of — shadings — of interior thought. Stephen Sachs, the co-artistic director at the Fountain Theatre was the person who approached you. What was your initial thought?
Tony Maggio and Leith Burke in “Citizen: An American Lyric.”
CR: Actually, I had always thought the book should be a play. It came out of voices so it made sense to me that it could find a life on the stage. So when Stephen approached me I was excited by it. I had some anxieties about the investment or the positioning of the material in the book. Partly some of the things that I’d mentioned before. I was less interested in the staging of black pain and more interested in the staging of white implication in those dynamics. So that, I think, was an issue. But I was very excited that he wanted to adapt the play and I loved the adaptation that he did. He stayed very true to the text. It was more a masterful arranging and editing of the material. So the language is all the language of the text. In that way I appreciated the sensitivity that he brought into the material in terms of editing it.
LG: At what point were you able to see a script?
CR: I went to a reading early on. Initially, [I] was a little worried about the material being pushed over into melodrama because for me the problem is that what is insidious about this day-to-day racism is how ordinary it is. And the way in which, for the black or brown body, is something that is survivable even as it is not survivable. For example, in Sandra Bland’s case, the interaction with the policeman was survivable, but who knows at what point in her own psyche she is: how stressed the woman is, she’s making a major move. Yet another assault might be the one that’s the hardest to take, if in fact she did take her own life. So that’s the thing if you portray them as these heightened moments of scandal and interact with them as scandal rather than as the day-to-day quotidian interactions of Americans…
LG: They see it as “apart from” rather than “part of” the fiber/weave of day-to-day life.
Leith Burke, Bernard K. Addison, Lisa Pescia, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio and Simone Missick in “Citizen: An American Lyric.”
LG: Part of the actors’ preparation, I’d heard, was that they were encouraged to share incidents that had occurred in their own lives as a way to begin to interact with the material — did that inform/shape the text/script as well?
CR: The actors as an ensemble work incredibly well together and I think that the director, Shirley Jo’s direction, helped to create that bond inasmuch it created a field of empathy on the stage, because you’re also able to say: “Oh, my God yes, that also happened to you?” and “I can see now how I perhaps did that or said this.” So I think that that is fantastic in the way she was able to bring the actors to the material but to find the material in themselves and bring that forward into the portrayal of the role.
LG: Also in terms of the production’s timing, the show was opening right around the anniversary of Ezell Ford’s 2011 police-involved shooting and the 50th anniversary of the Watts rebellion, so these audiences arrived with all of this as a backdrop here in Los Angeles. Where there any audience discussions that you were able to sit in on where these news events and their emotional impact came up?
CR: I have only been to one talk-back and much of it had to do with people either coming to a recognition that, ‘Whoa, these are events that have been in my own life.’ Or ‘Wow, I have been involved and implicated in these events without really understanding what the ramifications are.’ And yes, because the play addresses the murders of many of these black men there is also a dialogue around what’s happening in the culture so I guess, yes, the answer is yes! There is that. The play is only a small reflection of all of the multiple ways in which race continues — race/racism — continues to determine what’s happening in our justice system, what’s happening in our streets, what’s happening in housing policies, what’s happening in education, what’s happening around office tables — in every aspect of our being.
Leith Burke, “Citizen: An American Lyric.”
LG: And finally, how have your own conversations changed around the subject of race and racial silencing?
CR: I think the best thing about this — this whole double consciousness, this sense that there was one conversation for African Americans, among them, and there was another conversation about African Americans among whites — I think that distinction has gone out the window.
There’s nothing that I would say to you that I wouldn’t say to whomever. That for me is the real difference. That there is no longer a sense that with you I can speak the truth and with that person I need to just get out of the way. And that’s happening more and more. I pick up the paper and I’m reading [New York Times columnist] Charles Blow and he is saying many things that I have never heard written in mainstream media.
LG: It’s true. And it happens too in real time on his Twitter feed and it is a refreshing candidness that is inherent to the immediacy of social media. You can eavesdrop on conversations you would have never before been privy to. And too, that whole old conversation about “airing dirty laundry” and keeping secrets, that’s changing. It has to.
CR: Right. That’s great in terms of African American culture. I feel for the first time we are all actually on the same page. Whether or not we agree or disagree at least we understand that there is a created white culture, and that created white culture has a history of white supremacism influencing its many decisions. That seemed like a no-brainer. But I think for a lot of white people that was not something to be said — or understood — because whiteness was supposed to be normality — and normality seemed to have no color. So everybody was supposed to strive to reach that. Then suddenly, finally, we have this recognition that we shouldn’t want to strive for something that has at its core the annihilation of black and brown bodies.
Lynell George, is an L.A. based, journalist and essayist. This post originally appeared on KCET Artbound. Production photos by Ed Krieger.