Greg Sarris' 'Citizen' a Highlight of Word for Wordcast's Adaptations of Short Fiction

January 26, 2021
By Nicole Gluckstern

Cars rush along River Road, past a lot where day laborers wait to be selected. A memory of a restless spirit haunts the highways. A yearning for a restless mother haunts the heart of her abandoned son. The joyful sounds of morning birdsong punctuate a narrator’s rapturous description of vineyards and purple lupine.

So begins the latest Word for Wordcast, a two-part narration of Greg Sarris’ Citizen, directed by company member Gendell Hing-Hernández. In a semi-regular series of podcasts, Word for Word’s unique adaptation process is given the radio play treatment in Word for Wordcast, which began with September’s three-part production of E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops and continues in February with Books and Roses by Helen Oyeyemi.

As with a staged Word for Word play, each word of each page is read aloud, interpreted by various cast members from the point of view of their respective characters. This gives the podcast versions the effect of an audiobook as much as of a radio play—albeit with multiple actors. While during a full Word for Word production the narrated characters stride across the stage in full regalia and three solid dimensions, in the audio version these dimensions are dependent on an individual’s ability to conjure them up at home, an exercise in focus. A workout for the imagination.

Edie Flores in 2020's Word for Word production of 'Retablos.' Flores stars in Word for Wordcast's latest recording of Greg Sarris' 'Citizen,' as Salvador. (Lorenzo Fernandez-Kopec)

As Salvador, the aforementioned abandoned son, Edie Flores smoothly moves the bulk of the narrative forward, his voice coloring each passage with a golden resonance. Through him we learn of Salvador’s abandonment, first by his mother, and then by his older brother. His struggles to earn money and restart his life in Santa Rosa, where he stays with his aunt Eldine (Carolyn Dunn), are warmly described by Flores in a lilting—if sometimes lulling—cadence.

His reliance on Eldine and her boarder Marcos (Carlos Aguirre)—who first takes Salvador to the day labor lineup to find work—encapsulates the experiences of so many new immigrants who rely on tenuous connections with distant family to establish themselves in their new home. That Salvador is U.S.-born, and therefore a returning citizen, is both a source of relief and impedance. It’s hard for him to connect with his newly found family members and unfamiliar terrain. And without English language skills, even most low-wage work is out of reach. All in all, he discovers that the holding pattern of his old life has followed him into the new, but he remains hopeful, relishing each small victory.

Sarris came onto the literary stage with 1994'sGrand Avenue—an acclaimed short-story collection that wasadapted for the screenby HBO. It, too, was set in Santa Rosa. (As the Chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, Sarris is now in charge of the popular Graton Rancheria Casino, just south of Santa Rosa.) Echoes of other Sarris stories are found inCitizen's characters, such as Salvador’s “great-great-Grandfather Tom Duke,” an indigenous medicine man credited with creating “an earthquake that destroyed everything, even San Francisco,” in 1906.

InCitizen, Tom Duke serves as a proxy for Sarris’ own ancestor and muse Tom Smith, and Salvador’s found family also feels like familiar ground for Sarris, himself an adoptee. Reuniting several key cast members from last year’sRetablos,Citizencreates an atmosphere of comfortable intimacy between its many voices—and as Sarris is a member of Word for Word's Author's Council, it marksCitizenas a family affair.

The cast of Word for Wordcast's 'Citizen,' by Greg Sarris.(courtesy of Word for Word)

Sarris’ densely descriptive prose is well-suited to adapt into theater for its vivid portraiture of the everyday, yet somewhat daunting to dive into as a radio play. The plot is minimal, elongated, and with very little dialogue; stripped of the riotous highs and lows and banter that bring classic radio dramas to vivid life. On the plus side, there’s a richness to the language that imbues the aural experience of it with poetry and purpose. The overall effect of listening to both halves ofCitizenback to back is one of letting the flow of words—like the cars on River Road—rush by impressionistically. After a while, it’s less about individual scenes or voices standing out, but about the shifting moods of a Santa Rosa summer, the thrumming of human hearts in transit.

Author of 'Citizen,' Greg Sarris.(Chris Coughlin)

What savesCitizenfrom drifting totally unmoored from the physical plane is David R. Molina’s evocative soundscape. Tightly woven scraps of sound effects, strands of music and ethereal voices comprise a crucial framework that underpins the narration and colors in the blanks. A bonus feature—original music featuring Aguirre as Emcee Infinite—caps off Part 1 with a welcome, if unexpected, jolt; like that moment on the radio when the DJ ends a shift and plays a banger for you to remember them by. As an epilogue, it lacks cohesion. But as a portal back to the present moment, it’s an artful approach.

Word for Wordcasts are available online here through the end of 2021, and are free to access and listen to.