BWW Review: THE WHITE CARD at Penumbra Offers a Brainy Rollercoaster on Race and Art
Director Talvin Wilks puts it well: "Journeying into the writing of Claudia Rankine is like taking a roller coaster ride through our nation's most complex and subtle quandaries regarding race." THE WHITE CARD is a new play by the renowned 2016 MacArthur Fellow, and author of five collections of poetry, including Citizen. It was originally commissioned by ArtsEmerson and the American Repertory Theater in Boston. THE WHITE CARD avoids simplistic slogans (though some are voiced by several characters) in favor of a far more nuanced autopsy of the way that white privilege (and the obliviousness and self-righteousness it fosters) infect the actions of well-meaning white people.
Charles and Virginia are wealthy white art collectors who see their decision to buy art that foregrounds racial injustice as an act of allyship with people of color. They are excited to add a piece by an up and coming black woman artist, Charlotte, to their holdings. Working through their agent, Eric, they invite her to dinner in their home. Their younger son, Alex, also shows up, fresh from a protest alongside Black Lives Matter activists at a Trump rally.
THE WHITE CARD unrolls in 80 minutes without an intermission, and never drags. It begins with the line "Serena is a beauty!" as the wealthy couple watches replays of the Australian Open before their guests arrive. Pleasantries include unwitting microaggressions that register on Charlotte. Conversation becomes increasingly fraught and eventually revelations disrupt the dinner party. Skillful design permits a rapid scene change while we, as audience, try to process all we've heard so far. The remainder of the play takes place one year later, in Charlotte's studio.
Lynette R. Freeman brings intelligence, restraint, reasonable wariness, and creative intention to the central character of Charlotte, the artist. Bill McCallum as Charles has a big journey in this play as his habit of command and sense of confidence both erode. The other three characters are not given as much range, but the actors commit to their moments. Michelle O'Neill gives Charles' wife Virginia hidden fragilities; Jay Owen Eisenberg as their son is accusatory and exasperating and wounded; John Catron as the art dealer Eric has enough perspective to be worried that something could go awry in this dinner party but is unable to forestall that in real time.
Penumbra Theatre relied on the resources of the University of Minnesota's Theater Arts and Dance department (where director Talvin Wilks teaches) to build the strong set designed by Assistant Professor Chelsea M. Warren. It's an all white upscale modernist living room and dining room incorporating six projection surfaces where we see numerous paintings referenced in the play, from one of Rauschenberg's all white canvases (which 'looks remarkably different in differing light') through to works referencing Emmett Till, the Million Man March, and events in Ferguson, to name just a few.
Be open to it, and you'll get a good education in one branch of contemporary art. Before you go, I'd recommend accessing the terrific study guide to this play prepared by the Minneapolis-based artistic duo known as Free Black Dirt. You'll be able to see and read about the art works referenced. The play goes by so fast that this will help you understand more about what you are seeing. This study guide is available for download on the Penumbra website, along with a whole archive of great study guides for earlier productions, multiple reading lists, and so forth. If you want to give yourself a real education about black arts and culture, this archive and the "Dig Deep" page of the website are a gold mine.
Key to THE WHITE CARD are designer Kathy Maxwell's projections of the contemporary art works it references. These projections shift seamlessly and usefully, which is also a credit to lighting designer Marcus Dilliard, who keeps everything visible without interfering with them.
Rankine's skill as a fine, fine writer is on full display in THE WHITE CARD, which is full of memorable lines that still seem speakable. Here are a few: "Our American pastimes are assimilating and forgetting." And "Anger can be a type of knowledge." And something close to this: "You can't put the past behind you.....it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard."
Rankine exploits the rarified vocabulary of art criticism, as well as probing the intricacies of contemporary discourse about race. She does not provide any soothing bromides or uplifting calls to unifying action. The second part of the play, set in the space where Charlotte is in charge, was particularly hard for me to 'read.' I think this has several causes: my own white privilege, which causes my mind to bounce off confrontational moments, is one. Another is inherent in interpreting politically charged contemporary art that deliberately calls up historic resonances: this play, like a Rauschenberg painting, will look different in different light and to different people. A third may be the playwright's aversion to oversimplification and easy answers. Credit to Rankine and her theatrical teammates here in making art that draws us in sufficiently that we will stay in the room with uncomfortable complexity.
Penumbra has long been one of America's flagship black theater companies. A production like this is a worthy continuation of the commitment to visionary work that it has long pursued. Current Artistic Director Sarah Bellamy (daughter of the legendary Lou Bellamy) offers this rationale for producing a play with four white characters and just one black one in Black History Month, rather than the more standard hagiographic historic piece about a black leader: "...it seems critical at this juncture of American history that we instead task white people with the fight against rising racism and bigotry in this country." She goes on to assert "Without introspection and personal commitment, good intentions are exhaled into thin air and decisive, meaningful action toward change is delayed."
This is compelling logic, and I applaud the artistry of Rankine, Wilks, and the company here as they entice us into such contemplation through the workings of THE WHITE CARD. It's a play that credits the audience with tolerance for ambiguity as well as brains, heart, and political awareness. I urge you to go and give all these parts of yourself a workout. It runs in Saint Paul through March 1.
Photo credit: Caroline Yang