It has been observed that racism is a way of seeing. Like in 2009, when a white Cambridge, Massachusetts, resident saw two black men breaking into the house next door and dialed 911. Cambridge police responded and arrested Harvard’s distinguished African-American history professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., for the crime of entering his own home.
The Gates arrest isn’t explicitly mentioned in Citizen: An American Lyric. But the kind of tragic parallax it illustrates about what has been called “the two Americas” is at the heart of director Shirley Jo Finney’s sleek and earnest production of Citizen, Stephen Sachs’ stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s 2014 volume of lyrical prose poems and essays.
Like the book, Finney’s staging is a grimly ironic inventory of similarly wounding gaffes as experienced by the evening’s collection of anonymous yet educated and affluent black voices: the white friend who repeatedly calls you by the name of her black maid; the white woman in the crowded subway car who declines the sole empty seat next to the black male passenger; the white neighbor who phones the police because the black man looking after your child paces in front of your house while making a phone call.
Delivered by a precision ensemble (Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burke, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio, Simone Missick and Lisa Pescia) and effectively illuminated by Yee Eun Nam’s projections, Jamaican-American poet Rankine’s text drives home the feeling of being made both “invisible and hypervisible” in a racially privileged social space that Zora Neale Hurston called “a sharp white background.”
One wishes that Sachs had resisted the impulse to diminish the gemlike integrity of Rankine’s poems by needlessly breaking them into separate voices. The resulting chronicle of black anger and white uneasiness at times seems more like a sermon than something that dramatically engages. But Citizen is nevertheless a potent and profoundly unsettling ride.
Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., East Hollywood; through Sept. 14. (323) 663-1525, fountaintheatre.com.