Working on the stage production of Claudia Rankine's book CITIZEN: An American Lyric -- about the "everyday" experience of racism -- has been teaching me unscripted lessons.
Five weeks ago when four black and two white actors began rehearsing for the world premiere of CITIZEN, one could have assumed that tensions might flare around the painful memories revisited in this play. Undoubtedly, references to Trayvon Martin, and the more recent shooting of the South Carolina nine, are moments still tender in the heart. CITIZEN depicts these and many more "common" encounters with racism, culled from the experience of every black family in America.
Non-African American readers might think it an exaggeration to say that every black person knows someone in their family pool who has been hassled for essentially "driving while black." (Though nobody has done a poll to prove this statement, I would wager that it is nonetheless true.)
For Black and Brown people there are experiences of racism so "normal" that they are, in the words of CITIZEN author Claudia Rankine, "more like breath..."
Still, the quintessential scenario continues to take away the breath of mothers, fathers and sons, in a way that both saddens and often enrages: a black man being pulled over by police, manhandled to the ground, and, in other varying ways, humiliated.
In CITIZEN, a black character is humiliated. Just blocks from his suburban home, he is stopped by police and arrested, without being given a reason for his arrest. At the police station he is required to strip and stand naked. In the end he is charged with the offense of "exhibition of speed." One of my favorite lines in the play follows a similar moment by saying, "Yes, and this is how you are a citizen."
Yes, this kind of abuse is part of the unwritten contract of citizenship that Black and Brown people know. And given this history, it would be understandable if tensions among the CITIZEN cast developed along racial lines.
But five weeks in, the barrage of racism taking place on the stage is different from what goes on amongst our ensemble offstage. In an ensemble cast, all members are equal in their importance to delivering the overall message of the play.
Our ensemble is getting to know one another. We've met one actor's wife and beautiful six-year-old daughter, used one actor's home a couple of times for rehearsals. One male cast member surprised the cast one night with a big bowl of the best homemade guacamole I have ever tasted. We've shared recipes. Talked politics. And, most importantly, we've discussed why certain subtle moments in the play are racist, and how certain other moments, written as universally racist, may not be.
As actors, dissecting moments and getting to the emotional intent of a scene is what we are hired to do. But the humanity and sense of team we bring with us to rehearsal is not the job of an actor. It is the way of good people.
As an inner fitness trainer, I am endlessly focused on identifying the behavior and thinking that strengthens and expands a person, versus behavior and thinking that make one brittle, causing smallness and contraction. How we actors are showing up as people leads me to examine the components that have made this difficult play and sensitive issue a beautiful testament to our humanity.
In identifying what is working, the obvious place to begin is worth mentioning: People are not natural enemies. Not every white person sees black people through the lens of racism, or vice versa. Here are other components I am certain play an important role in our elevated experience of working on this show:
• Respect - We all clearly respect one another.
• Feeling safe - A feeling of safety and acceptance of our differences makes each person more open and honest. In such an environment, fear may exist, but it cannot rule.
• Curiosity - Our shared sense of safety allows us to ask questions that otherwise would probably not be broached.
• Dialogue - We are talking, and listening to one another.
• Presumed commonality - Our starting place is our similarities as actors. We are people who love the challenge of getting to the emotional truth. Race is present, but it does not determine anything.
These simple -- and rather common -- priorities of each actor are making all the difference in our shared experience. Can they change things for our country, if as a nation we apply them in our daily lives? This is a question worth pondering.
We actors said yes to being a part of CITIZEN because we thought the message important. Our yes is a way of contributing to the change and healing our American family desperately needs.
Racism is taught. It takes practicing specific thoughts to become racist. When you lump people together in broad and sweeping generalities -- see every black person or white person the same way -- you are part of an old regime.
Working together with this cast makes me certain that there exist far more of us good citizens who are capable of respecting one another, creating environments of safety, exercising our curiosity in productive ways, dialoguing and seeing one another as more alike than different.
These are simple doable strategies. In these ways, we good American citizens can begin to behave like an ensemble, and ultimately rewire the debilitating and dangerous sense of separation we have been taught to practice. This is the unscripted lesson I have found inside of CITIZEN.
Imagine what can happen when good people rally. What we achieve can be surprising and important.