Ladies of Citrus
[Tuesday, 3 April: 7pm –The Table Read]
We trickle into the small rehearsal room in the basement of the Hop, the usual chatter about so and so, what the white professor said today. There are twelve of us, twelve black women gathering around a black table in the center of the room as we go around and introduce ourselves. Then we begin our first read-through as a cast. We laugh, discuss, and breathe together, responding as we push through to the end. The energy is palpable and leaving that night, we all knew that something special was happening and something great was emerging.
[Friday, 4 March: 8pm –Premiere]
This weekend marked the premiere of Citrus, a choreopoem written by ‘18, Celeste Jennings. A combination of poetry, music, dance, and song, the form was coined by Ntozake Shange to describe her play for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Produced at Dartmouth in 2016 for the senior project of Carene Mekertichyan ‘16, for colored girls became the inspiration for Celeste to begin writing her own piece. The original poetry for the show was set in the contemporary and more humorous, an homage to her friendship and modern black girlhood. But in its 26th draft, as it appeared on the stage, it grew to incorporate black women of the past as well as the present, taking the audience from mid-19th century America onward. Citrus is the stories of many women, in a non-linear structure with no climax or rising action, intentionally challenging Western standards and traditions in drama and plot.
In addition to being the playwright, Celeste was also the show’s costume designer, bringing her transcendent words to life through timely fashions. When I spoke to her about her costume work for the show she explained how her detailed immersion into the show’s aesthetic ultimately assisted her writing. “I thought that I would design all the costumes and then write the play. But what actually happened is I did a lot of costume research and the specific stories and facts associated with that research helped me write the play […] There was no costumes then story or story then costume[...]because I learned all these tiny things that weren’t being addressed in academic resources. And I was like, ‘oh I have to write about this.’” She gives one particular example, about how for former slaves, now without jobs or people providing them with clothing, the threads of what they did have would rot. “People don’t think about things like that, I definitely don’t.”
In her senior thesis, Celeste argues that “black women that are a product of slaves only dress the way we do because it’s a cyclical system of cultural assimilation.” They permed their hair and wore certain shoes and fabrics in order to limit the discrimination they were sure to receive. “It’s not following fashion trends, it’s surviving through dress.” Throughout the piece, the women change onstage from basic neutral clothing to period costumes representing generations of women, and back again. This is in the hopes that the audience will understand that “the struggles of the women in 1840, 1963 and 1947 are the exact same struggles and pain that today’s modern day black women young and old are experiencing. And that the black women of the future are going to experience! This is not a play about something that happened and is over.” The idea is that yes we see that this actor is a modern woman donning the clothes of a woman of the past, and “she’s still undergoing the exact same thing this woman was, she’s just in different clothes.” One of the first costume changes we see onstage evokes a young school girl in the 1950’s. The subsequent poem tells a story about one of the Little Rock Nine, a landmark instance of integration in America in 1957 post Brown v. the Board of Education. With special significance for Celeste, who grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, the audience gets the impression that the actress is at once one of these historical figures, but also a real person today, here and now.
When it comes to the writing, most of the poems performed in Citrus are inspired by Celeste’s own experiences or built upon themes in her life. But for the historical pieces and a few others, she was careful not to appropriate anyone’s story. In places where she couldn’t draw from her own experiences, she sought out the information. For one poem, Celeste reached out to her best friend from high school, getting permission at every draft along the way so her story could be told in the play. In speaking to her, she points out how important it was for her to work that way, emphasizing that she went through the same process with any other poems that didn’t address her personal experiences with family members and other friends.
"All of a sudden, everyone had all these ideas...it was just scary for people to be like ‘oh this is what I want to do with your art.’”
Celeste mentions the hardest part was navigating how to collaborate with other people on the piece, especially because she was playing so many roles already herself as playwright, costume designer, and dramaturg. She talks about how she wasn’t ready for people to project their own ideas and interpretations onto what she had spent years developing. “All of a sudden, everyone had all these ideas, and they weren’t my ideas, and even if they were better, it was just scary for people to be like ‘oh this is what I want to do with your art.’ When I write my poems, I read everything out loud, I know exactly how I want it to sound.”
Directed by JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, founder of the Black Ops Theatre Company in North Carolina in 2015 to challenge preconceptions of black theatre. Connecting through the theater departments new black professor, Dr. Monica Ndounou, the two began their collaboration for Citrus. JaMeeka, herself, expressed how inspired she was by the script’s poetic nature, asserting that she had never seen a play explore this many different time periods while centering on black women. In our interview, she lauded Celeste’s unique costume-oriented approach to the writing, a practice which JaMeeka had never encountered before. She also spoke on Celeste's drive and focus regarding the piece, raving, “it wasn’t hard for me to lean into this transcendental nature of black women’s oppression. I specifically love the line in ‘Hands’ where [she] says they’re yesterday’s hands, they still today hands, they still my hands. And so just the idea that no matter what time period we are or when we entered this sphere as humans, just how similar our paths and experiences are, and specifically as black women.”
When I spoke with Millenah, our stage director, she talked about how much of a privilege it was to have the playwright in the room while working on a piece. Edits and changes could be made easily throughout development. In her time as a director, JaMeeka was unused to working with the playwright in the room. “It took us a week or so to figure out how to appropriately work with each other,” Celeste says of the partnership. “I learned that Jameeka and I basically want the same things.” During the process, JaMeeka would try to “stay malleable so that the story still feels very familiar to the playwright,” noting that the collaboration was a fulfilling experience. “One of the things I really do love about what we’ve been able to create with Citrus … [is] a space where people were able to authentically and freely be themselves […] unapologetically.” Seeing the work that came out of this text she says, “just reminds me of what the theatre has the capability to do. It’s more than just acting. Lives are changed.” Monik Walters ‘19, who plays Last Lady in the play, wanted to be a part of this production for this exact reason. “There are only so many spaces where something that magical can be created. Why not have a great experience deepening our understanding of our experience?"
From the start, Celeste knew she would be addressing themes about surviving and resistance among black women. With that idea in mind, the poem titled “Citrus,” for which the show is named, “really rooted it for me,” she says. In the poem, Celeste talks about her frustration as she tries to satiate her desire for oranges. She can only have them during her breaks because they’re messy and take too much time to eat. “I think I compare myself to an orange because it’s something you have to work for? Like you can’t just bite into an orange. You have to actually peel [it] apart, and while you [do] it’s going to be messy. Something’s always going to go wrong. Sometimes, checking something off isn’t always a win. Sometimes oranges are sour! And you have no idea until you bite into it […] And then you finish, and you have to clean up whether it was good or bad.”
Citrus was choreographed by Jovanay Carter ‘19, who worked based on what felt comfortable within the space. Part of the challenge she says was scaling back “so that the words were still the centerpiece of the poem.” Her choreography was informed by ideas of the cast as well as her admiration of the written work, remarking that “I feel I’m reaching towards those women who come before me or who come after me —that’s so inspiring to me because it makes you realize that it’s not just for you, it’s for so many women before you.” This is a major theme of Celeste’s play. One of the many recordings that were played during the piece, as the actors change into their period pieces, is a recording of Celeste’s grandmother. With incredible vocal quality and a sweet southern accent, her grandmother speaks about the best way to make cornbread. A special inclusion for Celeste, it serves to emphasize the generational aspect of the choreopoem. “The whole piece is paying an homage to my mom and her mom and her mom and her mom,” she says. “I’m not trying to say, you know, leave this play and know that everything’s going to be okay. Because it’s not. Something’s going to happen tomorrow, or within the next hour, but I hope that you can understand with the aid of my play that […] you can do this because you have done it and the women before you, you know, her mother and her mother and her mother, they did it so you could have this very moment of failing. […] And that mistake will lead your children, the future black women.”
When asked about her future with Citrus, she expressed how it still wasn’t done. “I don’t want to change the ideas, at least right now. I just want to develop things, make it a bit more detailed than it already is….until i can reach a point where i feel like the entire show is so intricate and accurate that hopefully it can be produced again.”
“At least for that hour you have with us, you knew that in that space, you were so important, you were as important as you should be.”
In the short term, JaMeeka and the team echoed Celeste’s sentiment, “my fear is that people are going to come to this show, watch it, get up, and then enjoy their day like they do. I really don’t want this to be a play where they watch these emotions, these tribulations and journeys occur, and then go up, and go to the Hop, and start up again oppressing us in their tiny, little, ignorant ways.” Ideally, the play would inspire introspection. And to those who would identify with the play the most, she says, “I just hope that they at least in watching Citrus can feel safe, valued. At least for that hour you have with us, you knew that in that space, you were so important, you were as important as you should be.”
On the creative team we had Ashley Dotson ‘18 as the lighting designer, set design by Brenna Gourgeot ‘18, hair and makeup by Raegina Hill ‘18, Hailey Gordon ‘18 as assistant stage manager, and sound design by Jaclyn Pageau ‘18. Saving our lives and making sure everything ran smoothly, our stage manager Millenah Nascimento, ‘21 was there for every show and every rehearsal, ensuring that everyone’s hard work would have a chance to be seen. The play features Naomi Agnew ‘20, Jovanay Carter ‘19, Kaysi Herrera-Pujols ‘20, Nashe Mutenda ‘20, Chinedum Nwaigwe ‘19, Monik Walters ‘19, Lexi Warden ‘21, Sam West ‘20, and Amari Young ‘21. After weeks of preparation, we finally got to perform for an audience with our magia, flair, and dancing feet. The house was packed every night and the feedback was overwhelming. The most amazing thing was how people reacted to the piece–how they were moved, how they felt that they were seen and represented, how they understood and felt understood, how their eyes were opened. We—especially Celeste—received standing ovations, laughter, and perhaps most importantly, thanks. So many people saw themselves or the women in their own lives reflected on stage, a tribute to those often referred to as unknown or unidentified. People came to see it more than once, and with so many parents and families in the audience (Freshman Family Weekend), the generational aspect of the show meant so much more.
The journey from that first rehearsal together to our closing performance has been so important for all of us involved. Millenah remarked, “to sit in a room with eleven other people of color, women of color, everyday is pretty life changing actually, especially at Dartmouth because you don’t get that a lot.” If you did not see Citrus this past weekend, then you missed some real magic.