"The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow."
It's a killer line, no doubt, and one of the many bon mots sticking out, barb-like, in Claudia Rankine's devastating 2014 book of micro-essays and prose poems, Citizen: An American Lyric. And it only gets more real from there. Rankine's is a book obsessed: racially obsessed, language and insult obsessed, and obsessed with unintended slights that are never as slight as they seem. It is a book for the here and now. Not that the term ever needed assistance deluding itself, but to hear "post-racial" after reading about Rankine's incidents of contemporary racial injury both large and small is like being confronted with babble, a three-syllable nonsense sound. Citizen is also a book — and now a play coming to Piccolo via PURE Theater — poised to bring some cathartic relief to Charleston, a town whose past has in the last year asserted itself as undeniable, not just in the carriage tours and pretty houses, but in terrible actions that are deeply rooted in slavery and segregation. In Charleston, that line is indeed a killer. You read it and shutter.
In the wake of the Mother Emanuel shooting last June, PURE artistic director Sharon Graci was looking for a way to express the grief and rage of the community. The Citizen adaptation, by Stephen Sachs, was brought to PURE's attention by one of the cast members, Bernard K. Addison, who knew it from the original L.A. production. It is times like this when one realizes how small the world of professional theater is. Addison, a South Carolina native, shared the script with friend Erin Wilson, a PURE Core Ensemble Member, who in turn shared it with Graci and Core Member Joy Vandervoort-Cobb. With it, Graci thought they had finally found something to say.
Which isn't surprising, given the source material. Citizen is naturally conducive to a staging along the lines of Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide. Poetic monologues interspersed with tense, awkward scenes as well as some light multi-media are all part of the show. While reading the book, you often come across mentions of "script for situation" videos which are impossible to view on your Kindle, and thus probably even harder to watch on paperback. Art by Glenn Ligon and Carrie Mae Weems cry out for a projection screen, and Rankine makes consistent, curiosity-poking reference to Youtube satirist Hennessey Youngman, known for his monologues exposing conflicts within contemporary art. Rankine seems to have written the work with one eye toward performance, which in many books would be galling, but here works in her favor. The voice is already powerful and established, she just needs someone to speak with it. The original production's director, Shirley Jo Finney, and her cast (four actors of color and two white actors) will be in charge of bringing Sach's adaptation to life.
Vandervoort-Cobb (who also performs in the show) hopes to reignite a conversation which began after the Emanuel massacre, and after the gunning down of Walter Scott. "It's a hard conversation to sustain, and people want to back away, quite naturally, from that which brings them pain," Vandervoort-Cobb says. PURE could not have found a better work to do the job. Subtler than you might suppose, Citizen is difficult in all the right ways. Rankine seeks not to redress, but to define: this is what racism looks like now, right now. She is a writer whose vision can encompass both a black president and a bloody hoodie. A large segment of the show concerns itself with the perception of Serena Williams's black body at lily-white Wimbledon.
The stories and themes don't discuss how far we've come and have yet to go, but rather how much has been spent even to arrive where we are. Everything hinges on what words we use. "Black" and "white" is just the ink and the paper on which the story is told. As such, Rankine's focus is on words like "darkness," "energy," "body," "insult," "buildup," "stress," "erasure," "visibility." Exhaustion is the central motif. "Friend" appears again and again, though rarely in a positive context. The battle African Americans wage now isn't in the streets against dogs and fire hoses, she seems to be saying; most often it's within themselves while they are sitting alone in their driveway, trying to shake off a colleague's oblivious comment from earlier in the day.
Which isn't to say that the dangers are all internal. The word "self" has a prominent place in Citizen, as it should in a work concerning identity and society. At one point a friend argues to Rankine that Americans battle between a "historical self" and a "self-self." By this she means that you "mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning."
Bringing this play to Charleston gives the quote even more of a charge. Those nine doomed churchgoers thought they were welcoming into their Bible study a young man with mutual interests. Yet even after sitting with them for an hour, Dylann Roof still couldn't see them as innocent people. In that moment they were merely their historical selves, and so was he. Walter Scott was the man Officer Mark Slager pulled over in North Charleston on April 4, 2015, but it was Walter's historical self that Slager saw running away. That the gun was drawn "with the full force" of both their American positions is undeniable.
"I wanted to produce a play that acknowledged that the state of race relations in this country is really shitty," Graci says. "We are a nation in crisis, and our communities are infected with both macro and micro aggressions against persons of color, and until we make a conscious decision to acknowledge the reality of this, we will not engage in meaningful dialogue, we will not change the status quo. We will remain a fractured society eating itself alive from the inside."
In Graci's discussions with Sachs about the production in L.A., he remarked about how long the audience lingered after the show talking about it. Graci has employed a moderator (whom she considers almost a seventh cast member) to provide a platform for discussion after every performance, and, perhaps, to fan the flames of dialogue that the play excites.
"Rankine writes 'You can't drive yourself sane,'" Vandervoort-Cobb says, "but you can fight to make it happen. We want folks to join us in the fight, in the struggle, to be a part of the conversation and, perhaps, then, a part of the solution."