Citizen Adapted for the Stage


Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is many things in the literary world: powerful lyric essay, award-winning poetry collection, searing cultural touchstone on race. And now, thanks to the Fountain Theatre, Citizen is branching out to new territory: the stage. This weekend, previews begin of the stage adaptation of Citizen: An American Lyric in Los Angeles; opening night is August 1.


We recently interviewed Stephen Sachs, Fountain co-artistic director and playwright, about the process of adapting a book that has had a transformative impact on how we talk about race in America.



What is it about Citizen that drew you to it as a possible candidate for a stage production? Were you already familiar with the book, or did you read it for the first time with adaptation in mind?


When Citizen was in the process of being published, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. I had been looking for a project that would add the Fountain Theatre’s voice to the national conversation about race in America. I wanted the Fountain to make a statement that would open the eyes, minds, and hearts of audiences in unexpected ways. It was then, quite by accident, that I was caught by a review of Citizen in the book section of a national newspaper.  The title immediately grabbed me. Snippets from the book, highlighted in the review, intrigued me. When I actually got the book and turned to page one, it immediately flashed in my mind that this could be the voice I was looking for. As I burned through the pages, I kept thinking: “This could be a play, this could be a play.”


What makes the book—and the theatre piece—unique is that they expose and illuminate the small, sometimes unintended, and unconscious acts of everyday racism. Subtle, insidious, soul-crushing. Acts that blur by so fast, we don’t notice them. The little murders we commit every day, sometimes without even knowing it. Micro-aggressions between friends and co-workers, at the market, in the office, on the subway. What we say, how we think, what we do. White privilege has been so deeply systemic in this country for so long that many stop seeing it and don't even think about it. The book and the play make you see it, feel it, and think about it. And isn't that what art is supposed to do?


Citizen is a hybrid book—part lyric essay, part poetry, part visual art—which doesn't seem to lend itself naturally to a stage production. What were the challenges in adapting a book that's formally inventive? How does poetry translate to the stage?


My stage adaptation of Citizen is not a play. So, what is it? Like Claudia Rankine’s book, it’s a collage of colliding events, fragments, vignettes, and streams of consciousness that blend poetry, prose, movement, sound, music, and video images. An ensemble of six actors. Each is both a single citizen, and all citizens, interweaving. No conventional linear story, yet a powerful emotional arc. Fast-moving. Stylized. Theatre at the speed of thought.


I’ve created adaptations before from published works, from page to stage, and Citizen certainly had its challenges. Claudia’s language is evocative, intelligent, rhythmic. It is meant to be read, to be seen on the page and savored. Every word in the script comes from Claudia's book. As adaptor, my first challenge was to identify language that was more easily understood when read with the eyes than when heard with the ears. Line by line, I kept asking myself: If an audience were just hearing this phrase, would they get it? As I read I had to hear the play. Listen with my eyes. Hear the music in the text. Like jazz. What were solos? Duets? Trios? When did the ensemble join in? The rhythm of the language was very important. Adding other elements of movement, music, sound, and video then creates the jarring universe of instant images and sound we are subjected to each day. How we represent each other. How we are perceived and perceive others.


An interesting aspect of Claudia’s book is that much of it unfolds in the second person. I’ve kept that device in the play. It creates a fascinating affect in a theatrical, stylized way. The actors have to navigate the split between “you” and the “I” of themselves, sometimes playing both at once. It forces the audience to become engaged, to be placed in the role of “you.” Is that me? Are they talking to me? About me?  The illusion of power in distancing yourself from “the other.” That’s not me. Then that joining of personhood when “I” becomes “you.”


Did you work alone in the adaptation process, or was there creative input from other people involved in the project? 


I created the first draft of the stage adaptation myself. I had a clear approach to it, knew what I wanted to do. Because all the text in the play comes from the book, all the words are Claudia’s. My job was to find and orchestrate a dramatic shape and devise its theatrical language. Theatre, unlike writing a book, is a collaborative art form. Once a script is created on paper, it then enters the next phase of development, which involves guidance and feedback from the director and actors. And the script had to pass Claudia’s approval. I continued to shape the piece throughout the rehearsal process. Watching and listening to actors say the words in rehearsal is essential. We all learned together how to tackle the material.


Does Citizen feel like a distinctly American play, especially given the subtitle "An American Lyric," or do you think that it would translate to the international stage, as well?


You never know. I felt my play Bakersfield Mist was a decidedly American play. But it has been translated into many other languages and is now being produced around the world. Our hope is that Citizen will be performed in cities across the nation and other countries. The history of race in this country is unique to the United States and its founding. That said, Citizen illuminates some universal truths that are fundamental to being a human being and a citizen, no matter the country. The truths in Citizen are not self-evident. They hide in plain sight and demonstrate that though we may all be created equal, we are certainly not perceived that way by each other.


What do you hope audience members will take away from the play after viewing it?


My deepest hope is that audiences, when seeing the play, see themselves. And ask themselves: Do I do that? Have I ever thought that? Said that? Done that? I hope the play makes our highly educated, professional, and privileged patrons uncomfortable in the best possible way. I hope it gets them thinking, gets them talking, opens their eyes, like the citizen in Claudia’s book who needs to put on her glasses to see what is really there.  Without question, working on Citizen has sharpened my awareness. I hear now through new antennae. See now through new glasses. If audience members start experiencing that same sensation after seeing the play, we’ve done our job. And perhaps change can happen.


Citizen will be in previews from July 26th to the 31st and opens August 1st running through October 14th with four showtimes a week.
Ticket rates are $20 (students), $27 (seniors), $30 (regular), $34.95 (premium). For more ticketing information visit the Fountain Theatre website.


About Stephen Sachs

STEPHEN SACHS is an award-winning playwright and the co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre, which he co-founded with Deborah Lawlor in 1990. He is the author of twelve produced plays, including his stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, Heart Song (Fountain Theatre and Florida Rep) Cyrano (LA Drama Critics Circle Award, Best New Play) and Bakersfield Mist (2012 Elliot Norton Award, Best New Play). Bakersfield Mist just completed a run on London’s West End starring Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid and is now being produced in regional theatres across the country, translated into other languages, and produced worldwide. His other plays are Miss Julie: Freedom Summer (Fountain, Vancouver Playhouse), Gilgamesh (Theatre @ Boston Court), Open Window (Pasadena Playhouse, Media Access Award), Central Avenue (PEN USA Literary Award Finalist), Sweet Nothing in my Ear (PEN USA Literary Award Finalist, Media Access Award), Mother's DayThe Golden Gate (Best Play Award, Dramalogue), and The Baron in the Trees.  He wrote the teleplay for Sweet Nothing in my Ear for Hallmark Hall of Fame, which aired on CBS and starred Marlee Matlin and Jeff Daniels.  


About The Fountain Theatre

The Fountain Theatre is a non-profit producing organization established in 1990 by co-Artistic Directors Deborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs  dedicated to providing a nurturing, creative home for multi-ethnic theatre and dance artists. The Fountain offers a safe, supportive haven for artists of varied backgrounds to gather, interact, and inspire each other toward the creation of work that will ignite and illuminate the community from which it’s drawn and give creative voice to those who may not otherwise be heard.  Now in its 25th year, The Fountain has grown into one of the most highly regarded theatres in Los Angeles. The Fountain Theatre's activities include a year-round season of fully produced new and established plays (34 world premieres and 44 U.S./West Coast/Southern California/Los Angeles premieres), a full season of Flamenco and multi-ethnic dance, a New Plays developmental series, and educational outreach programs. To date, Fountain Theatre productions have won more than 225 awards for all areas of production, performance, and design. The Fountain has the distinction of being honored with more nominations and winning more Ovation awards than any other intimate theatre in Los Angeles, winning the preeminent Best Season Award twice in six years. The Fountain was honored with the 2014 BEST Award from the Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation and has been presented with six Awards of Excellence from the Los Angeles City Council for enhancing the cultural life of the city. The Hollywood Arts Council presented the Fountain with its Charlie Award for overall achievement of excellence in Theatre.