‘Citrus’ Brings Acclaim for Playwright Celeste Jennings ’18

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The choreopoem about black women’s lives is premiering at Vermont’s Northern Stage.

Celeste Jennings portrait
Celeste Jennings ’18 wrote Citrus, now at Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., as an undergraduate. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

When Celeste Jennings ’18 arrived on campus from her home in Little Rock, Ark., she planned to be a fashion designer.

“I definitely did not see myself as a writer,” she says.

What a difference four years have made. Jennings’s play, Citrus, had at its world premiere at Northern Stage Theater in White River Junction, Vt. on Feb. 29, and got a standing ovation from a packed house.

Like Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, which inspired Jennings when she saw it at as a sophomore at Dartmouth, Citrus is a choreopoem. Performed by nine actors, it combines Jennings’ spoken-word poetry with evocative movement and music. Jennings also designed the costumes, which are integral to the stories the women tell about hardship and resilience.

“It was really important for me to share my fascination with the history of dress,” says Jennings. “I learned through research what black women were wearing throughout history, and it made me think about how different their lives were. During the Harlem Renaissance, someone like Bessie Smith was all dressed up, on stage, but father south, women were sharecropping and didn’t even have enough to eat.”

While Jennings explores those social differences, her overarching theme is the solidarity and resilience felt and shown by black women of all ages, from all backgrounds, across eras, and despite hardship. 

Citrus was first presented in May 2018 in the Warner Bentley Theater at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, as the culmination of  Jennings’ yearlong project through the Senior Fellowship program. Associate Professor of Theater Monica White Ndounou was an early and influential mentor, introducing Jennings to freelance director and producer JaMeeka Hollow-Burrell, who directed both the Dartmouth and the Northern Stage productions. In addition, Ndounou invited Jennings to showcase an early version of Citrus at the International Black Theatre Summit held at Dartmouth in 2018, where it got constructive feedback.

“It’s like any living thing, growing and changing, and I’m so proud of the work that Celeste is doing,” says Ndounou, noting that the African and African American Studies Program also played a key role in the play’s development. “It really did take a village,” says Ndounou, who has started a nonprofit organization, the Craft Institute, to help foster for other emerging black artists the opportunities Jennings has had to break into mainstream theater.

Northern Stage’s producing artistic director, Carol Dunne, a senior lecturer in the Department of Theater, says  Citrus is “visionary, mature, and inspiring. Because I’m such a lover of the power of language, I knew that this exquisite piece deserved to be lifted up in a professional production. We all immediately realized the theatricality that we could give to it, and that it would give back to us.”

The cast and crew have close connections to Dartmouth. One of the actors, Samantha West ’20, has performed in numerous student productions, and spent an experiential “e-term” as a Northern Stage intern. Kyla Mermejo-Varga ’17 and Millenah Nascimento ’21 are assistant stage managers. Kathy Perkins, the lighting designer, worked on several Dartmouth productions before this debut at Northern Stage, where she is assisted by Hannah Haile ’20. The assistant director and choreographer is Lexi Warden ’21.

“I’m sure Northern Stage will do something like a reading in New York City, and introduce Citrus to other regional theater companies,” says Dunne. “When so many people work this hard for something they believe in so strongly, it’s exhausting, but also exhilarating, and the time flies. We’re equally passionate about the future of Celeste’s play.”

For her part, Jennings says she’s trying to be both optimistic and realistic.

“I don’t want to get my hopes too far up but I’m really, really passionate about its going in front of a majority black female audience and seeing how they receive it,” says Jennings. “And I dream of it being published.”

The play runs at Northern Stage through March 15.

Charlotte Albright