Racism has been constantly on my mind! This is unlike me. I tend to focus on what I want, and where I am going. No, I am neither naïve nor delusional; I am clear about the dark elephant in the room. However, I feel I can achieve more by focusing on the future, instead of giving my mind or power away to old ideas, or by trying to change the minds of racists. But the last 42 days have given birth to a new me. For almost a month and a half, racism has been inescapable. I am rehearsing a new play about racism – CITIZEN – while using this column as …
Racism has been constantly on my mind!
This is unlike me. I tend to focus on what I want, and where I am going. No, I am neither naïve nor delusional; I am clear about the dark elephant in the room. However, I feel I can achieve more by focusing on the future, instead of giving my mind or power away to old ideas, or by trying to change the minds of racists.
But the last 42 days have given birth to a new me.
For almost a month and a half, racism has been inescapable. I am rehearsing a new play about racism – CITIZEN – while using this column as a way to examine prejudice through both the lens of the play and the lens of inner fitness. Meanwhile, as a nation, we have experienced the pain of the South Carolina nine and witnessed the arrest and tragic death of Sandra Bland.
The point I’m making here, and the message in CITIZEN are the same: Racism is here. It is inescapable. It affects us all. And it is time to stop trying to distance ourselves from this truth. Instead, we must face it. See it. Call it by its name.
We are less than a week from opening night of the world premiere of CITIZEN: An American Lyric, adapted for the stage by Fountain Theater Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. The play, almost word for word, is a theatrical presentation of Claudia Rankine’s award-winning book of poetry. And it is one of the most in-your-face, thought-provoking conversations about racism I have ever encountered.
Sunday at the theater, there is tension in the air. We can all feel it. Our director and visionary Shirley Jo Finney is displaying a short temper. She has no more time for our general questions.
We are less than an hour from previewing the show for our first audience. The only questions that matter are these: Have we done our job? Do we have a show that makes people feel? Have we gone far enough, or too far? Will we deliver an experience that makes a difference? Is there enough humor?
Only the audience that is beginning to file into the theater can answer these questions. We will have to hold all other queries until after this preview performance.
Previews help a show solidify. They reveal any last-minute tweaks needed. Our official opening day is Saturday, August 1st. Preview week is akin to a pregnant woman’s water breaking. It prepares the body, or in our case the show, for birth.
Backstage is abnormally quiet. Jokes and good-natured teasing are usually present, but not today.
We actors have spent six days a week – four to five hours a day – together for the past five weeks. Some of the actors have come to rehearsal after their day jobs. We all have been stretched thin getting to this moment.
As the theater fills, we wait in our separate corners for the stage manager to call places. Some of the actors do vocal exercises. One stares blankly into space, going over lines. Others apply makeup. I am making last minute adjustments to my wardrobe.
As we take our places on the stage, the lighting allows us actors to see the audience. Most of the faces are white.
Bathed in a blue light that represents a dream state, we start the show. This production moves fast. It is only 70 minutes in length.
As the show progresses, the audience laughs in surprising places. This is always good. Almost on cue, a black woman in the audience says out loud, “What did she just say!” at the exact time that very line is about to be said by an actor on stage. The line is in response to a white character who refers to her black character friend as a “nappy headed hoe.” The entire theater laughs at the spontaneous moment. The thought, Maybe we do have a show, crosses my mind.
But as we hit the midpoint in the show, the laughter seems to evaporate. From the stage I can’t help but notice faces so blank that I wonder if we have lost our audience. No one is moving. This disturbs me. At that moment, as every actor must, I forget about the audience and let go to the performance. The show will be what it will be.
The show ends…and we receive a standing ovation.
After the show, some audience members are crying. Most importantly, people are standing in the lobby and on the sidewalk just on the other side of the theater’s double doors, talking. Really talking.
One woman from the South shares that when she was in middle school there was a black boy by the name of Galloway Picket. A group of boys dragged Galloway into the bathroom and tried to flush him down the toilet. Galloway was taken out of the school on a stretcher.
I did not interrupt her tearful sharing to ask if this meant that Galloway had died. What mattered was that this woman in her fifties was revisiting that painful moment from her youth. Talking about it was allowing some part of her to heal. She was sad that she hadn’t done something to help Galloway. She disliked that she had seen what was happening and known it was wrong, but hadn’t known how to speak up.
People stood on the sidewalk talking for more than 40 minutes, feeling safe in the shared discomfort. Clearly, the audience had not been sleeping. No matter how blank their faces had seemed from the stage, they had been present. They were remembering. They were processing.
This spontaneous sidewalk community was unwittingly engaged in the five simple components that can transform how we relate to one another.
Birth is a hard process. It does not matter if you are birthing a child, a project, relationship, performance, or a new relationship with racism. Every birth pulls at our very flesh – pushing us into discomfort and tearing at our seams. This is how new life finds its way into the world.
These times are calling us all forward. They ask every citizen to become more aware. And they gift each of us with an opportunity to stand up, use our voice and birth a new idea of what it means to be a CITIZEN.
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