Our Historical Selves

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

With the 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots, the first anniversary of Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, the murders in South Carolina, the seemingly endless, and senseless, litany of unarmed black men dying at the hands of white police -- with all of this -- it's hard to imagine a more timely subject for the theater to tackle than American racism.

The Fountain Theatre has adapted Claudia Rankine's epic prose poem Citizen: An American Lyric for the stage and the result is problematic, powerful, and inescapably essential.

Ms. Rankine's 2014 book length poem won numerous awards and made nearly everyone’s "Best of..." lists. The Fountain Theatre's co-artistic director, Stephen Sachs, has adapted this poem into a six- person, 75-minute chronicle of being black in America. The arc of the play takes us from daily micro-aggressions, seeming racial faux pas, through the complicated relationship between our present selves and our historical selves and into the more deadly terrain of navigating a white policeman's unchecked imagination if you happen to be a black male.

Like the poem, itself, the play has a wonderfully slippery sense of narrative. The cast, comprised of four black actors and two white, share the text that alternately enacts these moments, comments on them, and draws a broader social and philosophical context. While this might sound more like a lecture than a drama, what keeps the piece active is the profound questioning. If you're black and a white friend inexplicably calls you a "nappy-headed ho," what do you do? What are you supposed to do?

Of if you're Serena Williams and the US Open is seemingly stolen from you by bad calls, how do you deal with your anger? Your black anger? How does your blackness play out on a white canvas? Like any good dramatist, Ms. Rankine keeps the question alive and rather than present simple answers, she poses the painful questions.

Mr. Sachs has done an admirable job adapting this text and condensing it for the stage. The challenge, as with any poem, is how do you deal with the 'poetry' of it? Do you play it or ignore it? The Fountain production, at times, wanders from the immediacy of the language. A direct connection with the actors is filtered through an idea of form. Passages become excuses for gestural abstract movement that's at odds with the subject. For content this raw, style becomes a barrier that the actors must break through. Happily, for the most part, they do.

These formal quibbles aside, the poem is profoundly at home in the theater. While these struggles are unquestionably personal, there's something essential about tackling these questions communally. Having these words performed for us, embodied by flesh and blood actors so we locate both the thought and the pain in real bodies and, as an audience, bear witness together: have the uncomfortable moment of recognizing our own race, our own agency - that, that's what the theater's about.

Citizen: An American Lyric is far from a perfect play but inside its formal messiness are the questions we must tackle if both our historical selves and our presents selves are ever to find peace.

Citizen: An American Lyric plays at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood through September 14.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Photo: Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick and Leith Burke in Citizen: An American Lyric (Ed Krieger)