One of the most telling moments in "Citizen: An American Lyric," adapted from Claudia Rankine's book-length poem, occurs about midway through the 70-minute one-act.
The six actors recite a line of text, drawn from a Zora Neale Hurston essay, that is projected onto a board behind them: "I feel most colored when I'm thrown against a sharp white background." Lit in silhouette, they look for a moment like two-dimensional cutouts.
That scene encapsulates one of the goals of "Citizen," a Frank Theatre production running through April 2 at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis. "Citizen" seeks to add depth to our understanding of its chosen subject of race, and thereby give African-Americans — and all people, really — a fuller understanding of our shared humanity.
Talk of race is touchy for most Americans, something that often shuts down conversations. History has made it so. Our nation is founded on lofty ideals that came with asterisks: freedom and liberty for all (except for the enslaved or indentured). All people are created equal (if they are white men who own property).
In this complex context, finding an effective way to face a difficult subject with honesty becomes a courageous act. Writers such as Hurston, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks and Ralph Ellison have taken on this task with elegance. And so has Rankine, whose critically acclaimed book was published by Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press in 2014.
Stephen Sachs' adaptation is not so much a traditional play as a free-flowing "choreopoem" of interwoven vignettes. Rankine's lyrics are dramatized with minimal props in this important staging by Wendy Knox and her fluid acting ensemble, featuring Hope Cervantes, Theo Langason, Heather Bunch, Michael Hanna, Dana Lee Thompson and the charismatic Joe Nathan Thomas.
They present Rankine's words through scenes that serve as small acts of witness — testimonies highlighting the lingering asterisks on the promises of America.
Where Ellison's novel "Invisible Man" outlined the psychic cost of not being acknowledged for one's worth, Rankine's contribution is to show that even those who do get acknowledged can end up being negated.
The longest vignette in "Citizen" deals with tennis superstar Serena Williams as she battles biased officiating. Rankine uses the words of broadcast commentators to illustrate how a black body is treated in a formerly white space.
Shows dealing with difficult subjects such as racial issues are sometimes leavened by humor, as in Jackie Sibblies Drury's recent "We Are Proud to Present" in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio. But while there are occasional moments of levity in "Citizen," it aims for a tone of sweet lyricism and discomfiting grace that asks us to listen openly and honestly to stories of our fellow human beings.