The same weekend that President Donald Trump told four women of color in the United States Congress to "go back" to where they came from, four actors of color stood onstage at Center Theatre wearing red and holding red apples. They were already onstage when the audience walked in.
It was the opening night of Sound Theatre Company's production of Citizen: An American Lyric, a new play based on the evocative and enraging book of prose fragments by Claudia Rankine about what it's like to deal with the daily insults of racism. The show was adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs and directed by Jay O'Leary.
I had read Citizen a few years earlier, and it had stayed with me, but I couldn't remember anything about apples. As the house lights dimmed and the show started, two white actors emerged, saw the apples, walked up to the people who were holding them, and took them. They sauntered off with their stolen food like it was nothing.
It was a fitting illustration of the obliviousness and maliciousness, the presumption and plunder that define race relations in the United States. The citizens of color—played by Naa Akua, Nicholas Japaul Bernard, Allyson Lee Brown, and Shermona Mitchell—responded stoically. "Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs," Rankine writes in the book.
I figured the red clothes had to do with blood—a substance that is the same color in all human beings—but later, back at home, flipping through Citizen (a book that includes imagery embedded throughout the text), I saw a photo of the basketball team radio host Don Imus once insulted, made up of mostly women of color. Their uniforms were red.
Each prose fragment in Citizen tells a different anecdote. For example: "At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn't know you were black!"
In another anecdote, the narrator is going to visit a trauma counselor at her therapy practice in her home. There's a side gate that leads to a back entrance used by patients, but the gate turns out to be locked, so the narrator rings the doorbell. "When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?"
Each anecdote is dramatized with actors playing a variety of roles. The charismatic Brown—who is such a captivating presence onstage, it's hard to look away from her—plays Serena Williams during Rankine's extended riff on the injustices the tennis great has suffered at the hands of referees and other players (video evidence of these slights is projected on overhead screens). And Bernard's emotional portrayal of a man who's just been pulled over by a cop, then forced to stand naked, then to walk home for miles, is unforgettable.
If you have not read Citizen, if a book of nonfiction prose-poetry is not something you're ever going to crack, you owe it to yourself—and to your imagination, and to the world around you—to go see this. If you have already read Citizen, it will you remind you all over again of the power and poetry of Rankine's work.