Northern Stage

The cast of Northern Stage’s world-premiere production of Celeste Jennings’ “Citrus” at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction.

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Northern Stage took a huge risk following up its magnificent production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” with brand new play by a recent Dartmouth College graduate, who now happens to run the theater company’s costume shop. That bet paid off – big time!

Celeste Jennings’ “Citrus” uses intimate and personal storytelling to give voice to what it is and what its was like to be an African American woman in America, and its authenticity gave it deep emotional power at Friday’s opening night at the Barrette Center for the Arts. Rather than a teaching experience, “Citrus” proved an unpretentiously experiential one. It went straight to the heart.

Told in the form of a choreopoem – “choreographed poetry” – nine black actresses of varying ages took on different roles, sang and danced their way through a series of tales reflecting the African American woman’s pains, tragedies and even joys – but essentially a sense of not belonging.

They represented “the population often referred to as unknown or unidentified.”

Jennings created “Citrus” from a series of her own poems, first about herself then others, while an undergraduate student at Dartmouth. It became her senior project, incorporating a costume element as she sees herself primarily as a costume designer. For the project, she began working with director Jameeka Holloway-Burrell, and the two took the work cross the Connecticut River to Northern Stage.

“Citrus” explores what it is like to be a woman of color today, from having to do extra to keep a job, to be better without complaint. But that exploration comes through living the experiences and the intertwining of stories renders them more immediate.

Perhaps most fun is “us awkward back girls,” applicable to young women of any color, as they attempt to cover up imagined faux pas and keep their dignity. It’s pretty funny, and will make anyone a tad bit self-conscious.

Unfortunately also universal, women talk about unwanted sexual attention, from annoyance to rape. Their stories cross, from a seventh grader to a pregnant adult, yet there is even a moment of healing.

There is a history lesson too, but one told from within by the ordinary folks who lived it. One slave woman liked Sundays because she could go to church and raise her hands and sing, avoiding the unspeakable indignities – though she speaks them – forced on her during the rest of the week. A mother and daughter compare notes as the younger one escapes the South for the joys of Harlem. Throughout, Jennings’ exquisitely expressive costumes are changed onstage in an almost ceremonial manner

In perhaps the show’s darkest moment, “Strange Fruit,” the 1930s song about lynching, is given voice. A bit more hopeful, yet still unnerving, is the young girl, proud of her pretty dress, as she is about to face her role in 1957 as one of the nine black students in the forced integration of a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was truly touching, beautiful in its innocence.

Directed by Holloway-Burrell, the production was integrated beautifully, seamlessly sliding (chorography by Beatrice Capote) from one story or idea into another. Not surprisingly, not everything was perfect. The Latina black woman segment came off as a bit preachy, and some of the yelled lines were difficult to understand.

The nine actors – Monique St. Cyr, Olivia Williams, Samantha West, Aurelia Williams, Nemuna Ceesay, Lakeisha Coffey, Stella Asa, Jazmine Stewart and Stephanie Everett – were generally excellent.

MeJah Balams’ magnificent set combined a ghetto-like atmosphere, spiced by appropriate projections by Sadah Espii Proctor, to both prove utilitarian and reflect the enormous stature of the play. Kathy A. Perkins’ lighting dramatically accentuated the storytelling.

Expect to see new productions of “Citrus” throughout the theater world, for it is much more than a play, it is an experience. We can thank Celeste Jennings and Northern Stage for that.

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