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Theater Review

‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ allows an up close and personal look at the racial divide in America

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Nicholas Japaul Bernard, Naa Akua, Allyson Lee Brown, Shermona Mitchell in Citizen: An American Lyric. Photo by Jovelle Tamayo.

In a time when even the president of the United States is often embroiled in racist controversies, the short stories and anecdotes detailed in Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric,” seem more appropriate than ever. Last weekend was the timely Seattle premiere of the theatrical adaptation of “Citizen,” a book of short stories and prose fragments on what it’s like to deal with the daily troubles of racism.

As high-profile accounts of racism are consistently thrust into the national spotlight, “Citizen” brings to audiences a fresh take on the physical and emotional ramifications of systemic racism on Center Theatre’s stage. 

Four black actors stood on stage holding golden apples as the audience walked in. As the lights dimmed and the show started, two white actors emerged from the shadows, plucked the apples from the others’ hands, and walked off like it was nothing. 

It was a fitting visual for the scenes to come: for the next 75 minutes, these six actors, billed only as Citizens 1-6 and played by Naa Akua, Nicholas Japaul Bernard, Allyson Lee Brown, Shermona Mitchell, Rebecca Cort, and Richard Sean Glen, engaged in tenuous interactions meant to replicate the presumption of race relations in the United States. The only similarity between the four actors of color and the two others were the red clothes each wore — a striking visual cue amidst the dim lights. 

Each mini-story from Rankine's novel of the same name was dramatized, with Citizens 1-6 playing a variety of roles. Rankine’s book was adapted for the Center Theatre by Stephen Sachs and directed by Jay O’Leary, who captured raw emotion as the actors hustled around the stage, pushing boxes and rearranging themselves to create countless scenes of hurt, disbelief, and misunderstanding. 

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Rebecca Cort, left and Shermona Mitchell in Citizen: An American Lyric. Photo by Jovelle Tamayo.

The sparse set allowed the actors to fluidly change from scene to scene, much like the structure of the prose in Rankine’s book. In one such scene, Bernard plays an employee that goes to a manager’s office to sign a form. Upon arriving, they are greeted with the phrase, “I didn’t know you were black!” 

In a play filled with so many emotionally charged moments, expressions are everything, and the incredulous look on Bernard’s face gives the audience a much deeper understanding of how common this is. 

In another powerful anecdote, the narrator visits her new trauma counselor at her home for the first time. She has a side gate that leads to an entrance used by patients, but when the narrator rings the bell, the woman yells at the top of her lungs, “Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?” 

After realizing the narrator is, in fact, a patient, the trauma counselor then says, “I am sorry. I am so sorry, so so sorry.” 

Each actor had a chance to shine. Brown, a graduate from the UW’s Professional Actor Training Program, delivered an emotional performance as a disenfranchised Serena Williams during Rankine's extended prose on the injustices the tennis legend has suffered. Video evidence of this inequity projected on screens behind her, adding to the effect. 

Bernard’s poignant portrayal of a black man being unjustly detained by white policemen, then forced to stand naked, then forced to walk home, culminated with his character collapsing on the ground in a bout of hysteria. Screens behind the actors displayed the names of hundreds of people of color who had been unjustly killed by police forces. 

Even if you have read “Citizen,” it’s worth seeing how director O’Leary has adapted the work of fiction into a play that, despite its genre, communicates feelings that are real.

“Citizen: An American Lyric” will play at the Center Theatre through July 28th

Correction: An earlier version of this article had misidentified Naa Akua as the actor playing the employee signing documents in the vignette and implied that director Jay O'Leary had adapted "Citizen." The review has now been updated to properly credit Nicholas Japaul Bernard and Stephen Sachs for their respective roles in this production. 

Reach writer Divya Rajasekhar at Twitter: @divraj16. 

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