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Monday, May 1, 2017

Feeling My Way Through Claudia Rankine's CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC


continued from "Living Through CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC"

There was an entire section of the play about Serena Williams that floored me.

I'd heard the racist and white supremacist commentary about her, especially at the beginning of her career. But I don't watch sports, so I didn't see the details of what happened to her. When she wins I jump up and down, fist in the air like I'm the one doing battle and winning on the court. Her wins feel personal to me. But I feel like a bad non-friend now.  I had no idea just how aggressively white tennis tried to eject her black body from the sport. 
I didn't know about things like white referees having to be removed from judging her permanently after making 5 bad calls against her in a row. And somehow I missed Serena's winning 12 sets in a row in 2012, then having to defend her little victory dance being called a "Crip Walk" that endorses gangster activity.   

Learning what Serena went through made my being unable to find lab partners in class after class after class at my predominantly white school seem like so much nothing.    
This elephant hide insensitivity to unintentional racism and intentional but unconsciousness racism was captured masterfully in this play. But the play seemed more about us, about black people, about how these interactions with peaceful-looking, peace-wanting(?) white people get stored inside us.

Like actor Jeffrey Tambor, who just happened to be there the same night I was, felt very strongly that this play needs to move from Los Angeles Theater to film so more people can see it sooner rather than later. There is a push to move it Broadway. But I hope Tambor's plan is taken seriously so a broader audience can see it. In this age of Trump, we need more American art to reveal people to themselves. And this play was that powerful. It was so powerful that I felt a hollow pain inside. But it disturbed white others so much that they could barely stand it.

And some didn't stand it. One white man and his wife got up and left less than 15 minutes into the play.

During the discussion that took place after the play was over, I found out I was too engrossed to notice that more than a few white people snuck out in the middle of the play while others remained and fidgeted (much like they did during the not-comparable-at-all movie GET OUT).
However, maybe one-third of the mostly white audience stayed for the discussion of the play and race afterward.
One white man discussed how he was shocked at his parents negative reaction to a "professional black woman" he was dating when he was young -- and how that shock and hurt at his supposedly "non-racist" parents resulted in him deciding he would always raise his children in neighborhoods with a mixture of races and ethnicities in it.

An ancient white-looking woman haltingly told the audience of how she had a thriving shop until her neighbors found out she was Iranian. That was her entry into feeling what ethnoracism is like for black people.

The play wasn't perfect because the book likely wasn't perfect. Other than the wide section on Serena Williams (the female director's choice)I felt like I was missing black women a bit.

When recounting the unarmed black people murdered by police, only Sandra Bland's name was called out -- as I recall. I'm assuming the language choice was due to their quoting directly from the book. But black women were added back by putting up a mixture of black men and black women killed by police on the screen behind the actors.

But I wasn't too put out by this. You had to dig to find the real story of what happened to black women like Miriam Carey. And what I found within myself after watching this play was invaluable. There are so many things that I just pretend are okay day to day. And not just among white people either. I realize I do some of the same things in regards to gender and within my own family of origin's dysfunction. It's no wonder, sometimes my vacations involve going off to a place out in the sticks where I don't have to see, hear, or talk to anybody for a week. It's exhausting to absorb day-to-day trauma that everybody absorbs then absorb racism and dysfunctional family stuff too.

Speaking up because it's the truth and not because it will change things is a value I have a hard time holding onto.

The truth may not set YOU free but it may set somebody else free. At work, if you have to leave a job because of a racist, put it on record. If four people leave and put it on record, eventually somebody has to pay attention. It took years and years and he got 25 million dollar severance package but a hell of his own making is waiting for Bill O'Reilly because women went on record before they left. And there are other lesser O'Reilly-s in lesser jobs around the country who will be fired because we as black people or we as women or we as black women spoke up before we left our jobs.

At home, if you have to leave a family situation because of a racist or sexist or an abuser, then put it on record by talking about it when the moments right. There are a lot of people repeating the dysfunction they found in their own homes and laying it on their children.

What I found in CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC was how much racism, sexism, and everything else I am holding inside my body. The scars will remain. But not speaking holds onto pain that morphs into other things like bitterness, weight gain, weight loss, high blood pressure, workaholism, respectability politics, and just plain stupidity

What white folks will find in the play CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC are behaviors and beliefs they view as harmless.

At the end of the play, a black woman told a story of her nephew quitting his job because of a racist and how she felt he had to learn how to take it. Thankfully, one of the black actors and a few people in the audience said, "No, sometimes you have to leave." I didn't get to share my opinion that people should file a complaint before exiting if possible, should leave a paper trail that might lose a middle-class lesser-Reilly his job 10 years after you're gone. And I felt a bit silenced right after I felt empowered to speak.

Moments later, on my way to the car a young, very stoned young white boy said to me, "Oh my Gawd. You are beautiful!" when I was feeling old and overwhelmed and anything but beautiful. Seconds later, a white couple turned around and came back to me, offered to walk me to my car.

Felt like a God moment that I needed very badly because as my beauty fades and attention that used to scare me to death comes less frequently, I realized I feel my female worth disappearing even though I'm a feminist. More important than that was the fact that the white couple made me think about how I feel more and more like intellectual understanding of racism means very, very little. It is feeling that matters.

Coming out of the play themselves, the white couple probably wanted to do something nice for a black person or simply felt their humanity more after such a play left us all feeling so vulnerable....or maybe they do that sort of thing all the time. But it was important to me to re-feel that changing how people feel is the way forward for white America.

And it is white America that needs to move forward.

It is White America that has the disease of choosing only to feel for themselves, that has the disease of hiding from the dis- ease they feel whenever they remember their shared history with us and do everything in their power to avoid it's impact on the present.

Claudia Rankine's CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC making us feel a little too much is part of the remedy for what ails us all. I'm going to get the book. I hope I have enough imagination to fill the words up the way the actors, including Simone Missick of LUKE CAGE, did on that barren little Kirk Douglas Theater stage in Culver City last weekend.