The journey of veteran director Shirley Jo Finney to the Kirk Douglas Theatre’s Block Party with The Fountain Theatre’s Citizen: An American Lyric began two and a half years ago, when Fountain co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs called to ask her if she had read Claudia Rankine’s New York Times bestseller Citizen. Or maybe it began in 1997, when Finney directed her first of eight works at the Fountain. Or perhaps decades earlier when, as a recent MFA graduate of UCLA, Finney participated in Center Theatre Group’s New Work Festival at the Mark Taper Forum. Or really long before that, when Finney grew up in a segregated neighborhood and attended all-white schools where she was the only person of color.
In 2015, Sachs told Finney he was considering adapting Citizen for the stage, and that she was the right director for the project. "I read it, and I went, 'Oh, this is my life,'" said Finney, recognizing her own experiences of "walking through and navigating those torrential waters of mainstream America when you are a person of color or 'other,' and what you have to swallow in order to survive."
Citizen premiered at the Fountain in August 2015; last summer, Finney directed it again at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, just one year after the city was devastated by a deadly assault that took the lives of nine African-Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Every performance was followed by a discussion with the audience. "We felt it was necessary while that community was still healing and that wound was oozing," said Finney.
There will also be Stage & Audience Talks after every performance at the Douglas, where Citizen is onstage April 28 – May 7, 2017. Citizen touched audiences deeply in Los Angeles in 2015, but much has changed since then—for the cast and crew and for the audience. "As human beings we’ve been living our lives…we all evolve," said Finney of herself and the company. "At the same time, in those two years, there has been a transformation in the collective. I’m interested to see, now, how it’s going to land with our audiences. Because what was maybe specific to a tribe has now expanded…something has been awakened, because 'the other,' now, is everyone." The election, said Finney, "fractured what our belief system is about being an American and being a citizen, and what that culpability and responsibility is." She added, "Not only do you have to say, 'What does it mean to be a citizen?' But also, 'What does it mean to be a human being?'"
The re-staging at the Douglas offers an opportunity for the show to make a bigger impact in other ways as well. "My designer is excited because we have the height now onstage that we didn’t have in the [Fountain]. Our projections are going to have the impact that we wanted to have," said Finney.
"I think it’s a healing piece with a historical narrative, and we need it at this point in time," she concluded. "When you look at what we need as human beings, the three things, if you cut everything away, are: we need to be seen, we need to feel nurtured, and we need to feel safe. Citizen, I think, makes us aware and opens that space for that healing to begin."