The Western Stage Presents, “Of Thee I Sing,” a dramatized reading of selections from “Citizen: An American Lyric,” by Claudia Ranke, this year’s NEA Big Read featured work.

This afternoon, I had a conversation I never thought I’d have on purpose. More likely it would have been an imagined version of this particular conversation, or perhaps one only bordering the topic; speaking figuratively and indirectly. And preferably behind closed doors because it is not a comfortable or a pleasant conversation. But today I sat down at the Green Room table with Pete Russell, local actor, TWS alum, and co-coordinator of “Of Thee I Sing,” to talk about race. For a white girl to be assigned to write a blog about racial issues in America is absurd and borderline offensive, I know, but this is what I discovered by sitting down with Pete and asking him blunt questions about his experiences as a black man in America: we all need to stop what we’re doing, pull our friends aside (Or strangers, I mean, if you’re comfortable with that), and have these difficult conversations. Rip off the band-aid. Learn to see/hear/understand those who are different from us. This is where progress begins.

Racism in America is something we all think we know about and understand. We read about it in the news, we know our American history, we say “Oh I have black/brown/whatever friends, so I know the struggle.” But do we really? When was the last time you asked your black/brown/whatever friend to share how she is being oppressed? How she is being treated with “less than?” There is probably a whole lot they aren’t telling you because it’s uncomfortable. Until we stop assuming that we know and ask the questions and listen to someone else’s experience, we fail to acknowledge and help end someone else’s oppression. That is what Claudia Ranke’s book, “Citizen: An American Lyric,” chosen by the National Steinbeck Center as their 2017 NEA Big Read book, aims to do. And The Western Stage has taken her mission one step further by putting together a staged reading of selected passages from the book, to be performed at the National Steinbeck Center, as well as King City’s Sol Treasures (performance schedule below).

The National Endowment of the Arts started its Big Read program as a nationwide effort to get communities reading again. Every year, selections of books are chosen, and Americans from coast to coast are brought together by sharing the joy of a good book. Our own National Steinbeck Center has participated in the Big Read since its inception, and The Western stage has partnered with them on several works by performing staged/dramatized readings, including last year’s “My Life with the Wave” by Octavio Paz.

Ranke’s book is an episodic, non-sequential glimpse into her life and an observance of others who share her race. Each page gives us a different and very purposeful glimmer of an idea or a feeling that Claudia experiences as a black woman in America. And they are not always nice. Themes include invisibility – to one’s self and to society, the buildup and release of the ever-constant weight of daily oppression, and the relationship between black people and those in authority (The “stop-and-frisk,” Serena Williams vs. the white tennis world and the media, hurricane Katrina victims vs. federal aid). These are only a few examples. The title is an ironic jab to supposed racial equality in America.

James “Pete” Russell, Co-coordinator of “Of Thee I Sing”

Pete shared with me that of all the book’s major themes, the one that resonates deeply with him is the section entitled “Stop-and-Frisk.” He explained that as a black male growing up in this part of the country (California), racism is not so overt here as opposed to the East Coast and the South. “Here, people will smile at your face, but you actually have no idea what they’re really thinking.” The influx of recent incidents of black Americans being pulled over by police officers, resulting in violence and even death, makes a routine traffic stop a horrifying experience for any black American. Because of this atmosphere of fear, Pete was taught, as most young black men are, not to trust the police. “Being pulled over can end your life,” he says. These feelings may be well known to the black community, but this kind of fear and distrust would never occur to a white person in the same situation. Their traffic stop is not a matter of life and death, as it is for a black American. “You’re on edge the moment you see a police officer,” Pete says. “You’re on edge the moment you walk into a courtroom- anywhere where there’s authority. You go in knowing that you won’t get the same treatment, that you won’t see justice, so you go in with those feelings of oppression before anything has even happened.” The book talks about, how “you’re not that guy, but you’re always that guy, fitting the description.” And for a black man, you are always the man who fits the description. Innocent or not, even when playing by the rules, or minding your own business, you always fit the description.

Pete and co-coordinator Melissa Chin-Parker had to figure out a way to put this lyrical book on its feet. Since there isn’t a linear narrative to the book, they chose to extrapolate on its recurring themes, putting together a series of vignettes and arranging them in a cohesive format. A visual representation of the text, including a projected prologue, giving those who have read the book a whole new way to experience Ranke’s words, and perhaps, a way to better understand them. The cast includes Pete Russell and Hartnell student actors Zenin Pabingwit, Anthony Turpin, Gwen Woods, and Gwen’s daughter, Jazzy Woods, a student at Notre Dame High School.

When asked who this book is for, Pete explained that it is for the community at large. It’s not just for the black community and it’s not just for ignorant white people (said with all due respect as a fellow ignorant white person). “We co-exist and we don’t know each other,” Pete explains. ”This is the perspective of black America and how silenced we can be. And this is one voice saying, ’We’re not invisible, we’re here, and we do matter.’” Now it was time for a hard question. I asked what he would say to white people who might look at this book – its ominous cover and its uncomfortable subject matter – and avoid reading it because they don’t want to read something that bashes white people. Pete was adamant in saying that pro-black does not have to mean anti-white. “Our history is so complex, because we really don’t have a history like white America does. We have to take what’s been given to us, and formulate an idea of ourselves that is not the same as how white America sees us.” Most Americans can trace back their heritage to their ancestors – German, Polish, French – and we can celebrate that heritage. Whereas, most black Americans have no idea where their ancestors originated, as more than likely, they were taken from their homes and forced into slavery, all traces of their heritage and culture having been stripped away and lost forever. “When we try to celebrate our heritage, we end up as… just celebrating being black. And then we all get lumped together. It’s not like white people who can identify as German or Polish…we’re all just black.” Just as celebrating black history does not undermine celebrating one’s “white” history, “Citizen” highlights black issues without declaring white people the enemy.

The fact that this book was chosen above all others, and that millions in America are reading and starting conversations, is an enormous step in the struggle for racial equality in America. In light of recent events as well as America’s long struggle, this book is what we need right now. As a theatre artist, Pete believes it is his job to create theatre for social change. “Black people don’t always get a platform to speak about something, and for me, theatre is my platform.” Theatre gives him the opportunity to reconcile the thoughts in his head and inspire the change that he wants to see. “This project is a way to bring people in that don’t necessarily know me and to present them with some truths. And let them decide for themselves.”

I challenge you to come to the reading, to pick up a copy of the book (available at the National Steinbeck Center bookstore), and have an open mind. You’re going to want to go in thinking that you know it all (I did!). But you have to relinquish what you think you know, wipe the slate clean, and just listen to the story, and allow it to sink in. And then grab your black friend or your white friend or your whatever friend, and say, “Hey, I read this book or I saw this performance and it inspired me to have a conversation with you. I’m listening. Help me understand what it’s like and what I can do.” And on and on the conversations will go, and spread, until we can say we live in this country together and really see and want to support each other. And a citizen is a citizen is a citizen. And our country might someday be healed.

“Of Thee I Sing” Performance Dates & Venues:

Saturday, September 30, 2017

2:00 – 4:00 p.m., National Steinbeck Center, 1 Main Street, Salinas, CA


Sunday, October 1, 2017

2:00 p.m., Sol Treasures, 519 Broadway Street, King City, CA


For more information:

National Steinbeck Center Website

NEA’s Website

Flyer 8X11 B&Wlogos (download and share the flyer!)