Some nights, the cast of “Citizen: An American Lyric” leaves the stage emotionally gutted.
“There are multiple times when we make eye contact as actors where it’s just like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to get through this scene,’” says Shermona Mitchell, who plays Citizen 1.
Evening after evening, they re-enact what most of them see day after day: the fascination with the touching of black people’s hair, the preference to stand on light rail rather than take a seat next to a black person, the social typecasting as “threatening” due to being black. And the jaw-drop at the discovery that the person applying for a home or job is black.
This is just a sampling of everyday racial “micro-aggressions” played out in 39 successive vignettes over the course of 75 minutes in Seattle Center’s Center Theatre.
Based on Claudia Rankine’s award-winning book of 39 poems, Sound Theatre’s production of “Citizen,” which runs through Sunday, brings a raw examination of everyday racism during a period of soul searching, locally and nationally, on racial injustice. And, in a rather rare opportunity, audience members have gotten to take part in post-performance discussion groups.
A study released this month revealed that since 2012, hate crimes in the city had risen faster than the national average. Nationally, black people were victims in nearly half of all race-based crimes.
“This play is important for Seattle because of the passive-aggressive nature of the city, and the way that people here hem and haw instead of stepping into issues,” said director Jay O’Leary.
“Citizen” requires its cast of six actors (four black, two white) to move between playing the central figure and the Greek chorus during racially charged scenarios. This test of physical and emotional stamina involves racial profiling by police, discovering self-love as essential to masculinity, and racially charged media coverage of tennis great Serena Williams.
O’Leary included mini-dance sequences in the play as a clever coping mechanism so the cast could temporarily de-stress from replaying racial humiliations, and from painful emotions that arise during performances.
But the undertaking was worth it, according to Allyson Lee Brown, who plays Citizen 2.
“I always pray before the show and always ask God if I can just touch one person in the audience,” Brown said.
Those requests have been fulfilled through the challenges presented by both the performance and after-play conversations led by O’Leary and Sound Theatre’s Artistic Director Teresa Thuman.
“It made me put myself in the situation of a black person in society. What stays with me is the idea of racism as a thousand cuts day in and day out,” said playgoer Jonathan Patten, 61, who is white.
Patten, who lived in New York before moving to Seattle several years ago, said though he sees no overt racial tension here, “Citizen” made him realize there isn’t as much racial mixing in the city as in his former home.
“During the discussion I had with my friends afterward some of them said, ‘I really don’t have many black friends here,’” he said, and adds that it encouraged him to intentionally reach out more across races.
For Sean Ludviksen, 58, who attended a Saturday evening showing, it made him question his own social tendencies.
“When I see an African American man, do I see a man?” Ludviksen, who is white, asked himself after the play. “When I see he’s black, that’s what I see. I’m a liberal person, but our implicit bias is something we all have to work at.”
“Citizen” put Seattle’s liberal bona fides on trial for Elena Esquibel, 37, who is Mexican American.
“More often than not there’s fake liberalism here. People of color would tell you that’s the case,” said Esquibel, who had little knowledge about the play before seeing it.
The play’s “exhibition of everyday racism resonated in showcasing how racism masquerades as mellifluous interactions through the course of the day,” said Esquibel, who teaches at Shoreline Community College.
“It’s not as overt as other parts of the country, but we do have a culture of violence in the city that plays out through micro-aggressions,” she said, referring to a scene in which a white man bumps into a black child on the street, knocking the youth over and disregarding him without an apology.
Other non-black people of color say the play has helped them see their privileges when compared to black people.
“My experiences can’t be labeled as either black or white. I have benefits of being non-black but I’m also POC with people stereotyping me a certain way,” said Wei Lou, 24, who is Malaysian and Chinese.
Upon seeing the play, she thought about some of the anti-black bigotry she’s witnessed from a few adults she knows within her community.
“A think a lot of that behavior comes from wanting to be this ideal of white,” she said.
Rhoda Lewis, 63, experienced “Citizen” as a thundering wake-up for a city “lulled into complacency.”
“People make racism personal. They say, ‘I don’t do bad things so everything’s fine.’ But that doesn’t focus on the structural racism,” said Lewis, who is black.
The vignette that most resonated is one in which the names of black people killed by police over the past decade pile up on multiple screens until no blank space exists, as cast members repeat, “in memory.”
When you add the play to the “white learning table” featuring jars for “white tears” in the lobby, some white audience members are bound to feel uncomfortable — a good thing according to Lewis.
“Black people have to be in discomfort some part of the day, every day. We don’t have a choice,” she said. “White people can remove themselves from discomfort whenever. This play ask them to stretch themselves.”
Few places offer the ability to do that stretching better than the theater, said Nora Ludviksen.
“A part of change is sitting down and receiving language. With the theater you hear every word. How often is that the case in real life?” ask Ludviksen, 63, who identifies as a Latino and white.
As the play prepares for its closing weekend, exiting audience members will be asked another question.
After they’ve been moved by the performances, and self-examined their contributions to anti-blackness, a sign will greet them in the lobby.
It reads: “Now what?”
“Citizen: An American Lyric” is playing at the Center Theatre, 305 Harrison St., at 8 p.m. Friday, July 26, and Saturday, July 27; and 2 p.m., Sunday, July 28. Information at www.soundtheatrecompany.org and 206-880-3947.