On the way to see Frank Theatre’s production of “Citizen: An American Lyric” at Intermedia Arts, we wondered: How would Claudia Rankine’s book translate from page to stage? A meditation on race, published in 2014 by Minneapolis’ Graywolf Press, “Citizen” is famously hard to classify. Combining prose poems with poetic essays and images, it was the first book of poetry to appear on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry but was also a finalist in the criticism category. What could a playwright do with something like that?
Stephen Sachs of Los Angeles’ Fountain Theater, where “Citizen” was first produced, didn’t try to turn it into a play with characters and a linear narrative. Instead, he created what he calls “a collage of colliding events, fragments, vignettes, and streams of consciousness that blend poetry, prose, movement, sound, music, and video images.” Six actors assume various roles, some wordless, some lasting a sentence or two. Six white chairs are the props. A screen at the back of the stage shows videos and stills.
Rankine’s book becomes even more powerful on stage. It’s one thing to know about microaggressions, another to see and hear the slights, asides and comments: “My dean is making me hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.” “You have features like a white person.” “I didn’t know black women could get cancer.” Meditations reveal the constant questioning of the self: “Did she really just say that? He said what? What did she do? Did I hear what I think I heard?” We see in a man’s posture and face what it’s like to be someone a white person won’t sit beside on a train. In the actors’ bodies, we witness the stress and sheer exhaustion of “the buildup of erasure.”
There’s a longish section on tennis champion Serena Williams and how she was treated for bringing her black body into a white world. An image on screen – of Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, who stuffed towels in her top and shorts at an exhibition match to imitate Serena – brought gasps from the audience. There’s a stop-and-frisk section with a repeated refrain that will burn itself into your brain: “You are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.” Every word in Sachs’ adaptation is from Rankine’s original book, but Frank added several names to Rankine’s list of black men and women killed by police officers, including Jamar Clark and Philando Castile. On opening night, the actor reading the list barely made it through.
Wendy Knox directs; the strong and committed cast includes Heather Bunch, Hope Cervantes, Michael Hannah, Theo Langason, Joe Nathan Thomas and Dana Lee Thompson. The acting is straightforward and matter-of-fact; no histrionics are needed to reinforce Rankine’s language. Bill Cottman’s projections add depth and drama. Mike Wangen’s lights gently guide the attention.
If you’ve read the book, Frank’s production will underscore what you learned from it. If you haven’t read the book, the staging is a way in, and you can read it later, taking your time. (“Citizen” made many must-read lists.)
The opening night audience was mostly white. For white people, “Citizen” is a window into something we may think we’re smart about, but our knowledge is abstract and intellectual, not personal. We can’t know what it’s like to live with racism and be its target. Seeing “Citizen” will at least make us less clueless – and potentially better allies in a time when racism is becoming more overt.
Frank Theatre’s production of “Citizen” continues through April 2 at Intermedia Arts, with performances Thursdays-Sundays. FMI and tickets ($22/$25). 612-724-3760.
Knight Arts Challenge St. Paul information sessions begin
If you plan to enter the 2017 Knight Arts Challenge and maybe win some of the $1 million to be shared among the winners, Knight Foundation wants to help. Today (Tuesday, March 14) and Thursday, you can meet one-on-one with Knight Arts Program Officer Adam Ganuza for 15 minutes of individualized feedback. On Wednesday, there’s a community conversation at the Rondo Library from 5:30-7 p.m. Knight staff will review the challenge basics, the timeline, and what they’re looking for in applications. Past winners will be there to offer helpful tips. Register here if you haven’t already. The Challenge opens March 29.
Tonight (Tuesday, March 14) at Crooners: Sam Miltich & Friends. Northern Minnesota guitarist Miltich is best known for his mastery of Django Reinhardt-style gypsy jazz, but he can play all kinds of music, from trad jazz to French musette, Finnish folk to bossa nova. Which he does in his famous weekly jazz nights at the VFW in Grand Rapids, where he’s often joined by musician friends from across the state. A 2016 CD “Sam Miltich & Friends: Live at the VFW” is a snapshot of that series, and copies will probably be available at this show. In the Dunsmore Room, meant and made for listening. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($10/$35 dinner show). 1-800-838-3006. Miltich was recently featured on TPT’s “MN Original.”
Wednesday at Open Eye Figure Theatre: “Rooted: A Performance by Tim Miller.” Miller married his husband, Alistair, on June 26, 2013 – the day the Defense of Marriage act was overturned. That was the first marriage license in his family issued in New York State since 1865. In his new solo show, the internationally acclaimed performance artist explores family trees, hidden LGBT histories that live among their branches, the “gorgeous perversity” of obsessive genealogical research and what happens when we achieve one kind of social change (marriage equality) only to be faced with another kind (the current White House). 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($18/$12).
Thursday at Lyric Arts: “Urinetown: The Musical.” It seems all art these days has political overtones, whether intended, implied or inferred. “Urinetown” opened on Broadway in 2001, the first year of George W. Bush’s presidency; it was nominated for 10 Tonys and won 3. A satire of government, bureaucy, capitalism, municipal politics and more, it probably reads a bit differently today, but its premise – the right to pee – is still funny. Directed by Matt McNabb. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($18-32). Runs Thursdays-Sundays through April 2.
Thursday at Aria: Schubert Club Mix: tenThing. The all-female Norwegian brass ensemble led by trumpet virtuoso Tine Thing Helseth (TEE-na Ting HEL-set) is not limited by the usual brass repertoire. In concert, as on their debut album, “10,” they play everything from Bizet to Piazzolla, Kurt Weill to Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca” from Piano Sonata No. 11 (remember, this is a brass band). Fun to watch, musically satisfying to hear, they have performed all over Norway and widely in Europe; Aria will be the second stop on their first US tour. This will be a mostly classical program. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30). Sold out; check availability online or call the Schubert Club ticket office at 651-292-3268.
Saturday at Mia: Poet Susan Stewart and artist Ann Hamilton. Rain Taxi, which already this year has brought us authors Paul Auster and George Saunders, presents its first event at Mia: fittingly, a mix of poetry and art. Stewart, the author of five books of poetry including “Columbarian,” winner of a 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award, and Hamilton, an installation artist and MacArthur fellow, will present their collaborative pieces “Channel” and “Mirror” along with other works. 2 p.m. Free and open to the public. FMI. This event is a collaboration with the College of St. Benedict and Graywolf Press, publisher of Stewart’s new book, “Cinder: New and Selected Poems.”