‘Citrus,’ a compelling choreopoem, celebrates black women

by Savannah Miller | 5/10/18 2:25am

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Source: Courtesy of Rob Strong

This past weekend, "Citrus," an original choreopoem by studio art major Celeste Jennings '18, was staged at the Bentley Theater at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. "Citrus," which was produced by the theater department, details the struggles of black women in America from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day.

Jennings is a Senior Fellow, which means she spent her senior year working on a project that goes beyond traditional classroom learning. “Citrus” is a culmination of Jennings’s long-term work in the theater department as a costume designer and in Soul Scribes as a poet. Jennings started the writing process for “Citrus” by revisiting all of her old poems and compiling them.

“The first version of the play was literally me getting all of my Soul Scribes poems and putting them together in a word document,” Jennings said. “It was very different from what ‘Citrus’ is now, but they were a great starting point for me.”

The result was 20 spoken poems and voice-overs inspired by historical events and personal stories, many of which were autobiographical. The poems were performed by nine women, all of them embodying different roles or characters throughout the piece. Jennings’ goal was to celebrate black women and validate their narratives.

“I was really just trying to create a homage for black women of the past, present and future, because this life doesn’t always care or love us,” she said. “I wanted to create a space where people who do or don’t identify as that can come and for a moment feel safe.”

Jennings also designed the costumes for “Citrus,” a process in which she has gained expertise through her experiences working at the costume shop. Her design process included extensive research of the intersection of fashion and history, particularly in regards to women of color. Jennings found it interesting that the sources she used to research the styles of the period portrayed fashion as conforming to a certain standard.

“[Different ethnic groups] definitely didn’t use the same fabric,” she said. “They may have had different closures or that kind of thing … There are so many niches within that for different ethnic groups, which is fascinating to me.”

“Citrus” was also unique for its all-female production team, a choice Jennings made purposefully. Ashley Dotson ’18, the lighting designer for “Citrus,” had already worked with Jennings on several productions before “Citrus.” They first discussed the project last spring, and Dotson found herself fascinated as she watched Jennings’ concept become a reality throughout the year.

“It was really neat to see what she’d produced, knowing the brainchild that it was when I talked to her about it last spring,” Dotson said. “To hear her voice come through in the play was a really great thing.”

Dotson was also excited to be a part of a project shedding light on the experiences and individuality of black women.

“It was really important for [Jennings] to include different people’s stories,” she said. “[‘Citrus’] does a good job of trying to not construct a singular narrative.”

One of Jennings’s favorite poems in “Citrus” is “Hands,” which featured Sam West ’20 as a pre-emancipation slave picking cotton. While writing the piece, Jennings did extensive research into the time period to better represent the emotions and complexities that defined enslaved black women.

“It’s really special to me, just because I’m trying to give life to these women, the women in my family who were slaves,” she said. “I feel like I did justice to it.”

Jennings also loved “Fifteen,” a voiceover poem about the shortcomings of the Fifteenth Amendment. Many women were unsatisfied with the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment because it didn’t give them any rights, Jennings said.

Lexi Warden ’21 was one of the nine women cast in the show and recorded “Fifteen” for Jennings. She was drawn to the show partly because of the production’s direction, since a show with a completely female production team is so rare. For Warden, another major appeal of participating in the project was the play’s content.

“We’re in a time right now where people are realizing that we’re telling the same stories,” she said. “I think that [Jennings’] piece brings a new voice to the table.”

After the shows this weekend, Jennings was taken aback by how well audience-goers received her play.

“I wasn’t prepared for the positive feedback I got from the play or for the audience to respond in the emotional way that they did,” Jennings said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Warden is hopeful that the audience’s positive response to the piece will keep them going to the theater to support stories like the ones contained within “Citrus.”

“In order to make our art a more diverse space and have more voices be heard, it needs to be supported,” Warden said. “I hope [people] see things like this and realize how incredible it is. It needs to keep happening.”

Dotson said she was just happy that black women were finally given a place to speak and be celebrated.

“It’s a narrative that is definitely underrepresented at Dartmouth,” Dotson said. These experiences and these people are still valid, and they still deserve to be heard. We are here. We are equals. We all have our different stories, and they should all be shared.”

Other responses to “Citrus” that Jennings was not expecting was the way her poems affected cast members and the sense of community the show created.

“This piece was mine for a really long time,” she said. “All of a sudden, when we started rehearsing, I felt like it was no longer mine, but all of these beautiful women’s. I think the audience got a taste of that.”

Overall, Jennings hopes that her piece resonated with all audience members, especially black women who have identified with the experiences contained within “Citrus.”

“I hope they can be in that safe space, and at least for the 90 minutes of the show, feel like they are absolutely important and do anything they want, because they can,” Jennings said.

Correction Appended (May 10, 2018): This article was updated to clarify the role of the theater department in producing "Citrus."