The White Card by Claudia Rankine opened last night at the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. The Playwright was in attendance and there was a brief Q & A after the performance with her and the Director Talvin wilks. Before they began and again at the end the interviewers Junauda Petrus and Erin Sharkey from Free Black Dirt asked us to talk to the person next to us. I am not an extroverted person, I don’t talk to strangers easily, I’m good once I know someone, and I definitely prefer to meet new people in a group setting. I was seated next to my wife, whom I ignored as I didn’t really think that is what they meant. To my left was an older black man, For those who don’t know me, I’m younger than he was and white. We did as we were instructed, though it wasn’t a long conversation, I believe that is because of my lack of skills in talking to new people out of the blue and not that he was a different skin color than I am. The initial instruction while they were getting set up was to ask each other a question or get each others reactions to the play that we just saw. He asked what I thought, I said that it really made me think and that I’m not sure what the answer is to those questions that it raised. He replied that he didn’t think there was an answer. I said maybe the point is to listen, and to this, he nodded. When they concluded their Q & A they asked us to return to that neighbor and say the one word that would be on our minds as we leave the theatre. I said “Privilege”. He said “Hope”. I like his answer better, but as I think about it, maybe his word was an response to my word.
The White Card is a great play performed by a fantastic cast. Rankins Script beautifully articulates the issues of race and racism in contemporary American Society while also exploring the differences with which we interpret art. Act one is set in the home of Charles and Virginia Spenser wealthy art patrons who specialize in collecting works depicting social injustice and particularly the violence that has been inflicted on black Americans. They are expecting Charlotte, a black photographer who is on the verge of breaking big. The Spenser’s Art Dealer and friend Eric has arranged the dinner so that the couple and the photographer can meet, as the Spenser’s would like to buy her latest works. As the evening begins the quartet discusses the art on the Spenser’s walls as well as Charlotte’s work. Before long they are joined by the Spenser’s son Alex who is a college student and activist, he does everything he can to fight social injustice and the current political regime. As the evening progresses we learn more and more about each of the characters and their true selves are revealed. This is where things get tricky. There are not easy answers here, Virginia shows here understanding of racism to be on the surface, with a solid core of white privilege, blatantly sitting right under that black loving topsoil. Charles is more deeply well intentioned, but he tries to do what he thinks are the right things, but as Charlotte and Alex point out, he doesn’t really understand what that is. Eric, seems to be on Charlotte’s side but is also motivated by his desire to add her work to the collection. Unlike Charles and Virginia, he seems capable of hearing the privilege and condescension that comes out of their mouths and works tirelessly to counter every misstep they take. Charlotte is the perspective of the black person who understands on one hand that the Spencers are well intentioned, but on the other hand they do not understand, how much they don’t actually understand. Charlotte points out at one point that Charles’ interpretation of this art is an illustration in itself of white privilege. His art focuses on the violence done to the black person, it should be shining a light upon the white people who inflicted it or stood by as it was inflicted. He views the blacks in his artwork as the victims, which is a condescension, he should be focusing on the Whites as the perpetrators. Alex is the possibly, too “woke” voice of youth. He and Charlotte share a lot of the same views, but Charlotte has a more grounded and measured approach, whereas Alex is young and idealistic and has not yet learned the all important lesson of compromise and balance.
John Catron plays Eric always observing and we can see the watchfulness in his eyes. He is ready at a moments notice to jump in and smooth over the faux paus. When he learns Alex will be joining for dinner, that’s the first time we see panic in his eyes. Catron telegraphs to us that this is the one variable he is not confident he can control. The character could have come off as manipulative and slick, but Catron plays him as someone who is talented and negotiating prickly situations. We sense that his motivations is to get what he wants, but that he also feels it will be in both of the other parties best interest. Bill McCallum as Charles has the largest character arc to deal with, he begins his performance as a man Confident in his opinions and his place. Before long his interpretations of art and his understanding of his own place are challenged. McCallum, shows us this change gradually throughout the play, going from a position of superiority and comfort to one of defensiveness. When what he sees as a move that will save the evening, the unveiling of a new piece of art he has acquired backfires, his entire identity as an art expert, intouch liberal, and friend of the less fortunate is under siege. Michelle O’Neill as Virginia feels like probably the most authentic character, she spouts what she knows is the correct political jargon but with the way she says things and the cluelessness with which she says things. White privilege is the thing white people have because they don’t know they have it. O’Neill is perfect at playing that clueless aspect, every line reading feels authentic, we have all seen this person enough to recognize as real. Jay Owen Eisenberg was so good last spring in Hedwig and the Angry Inch and delivers another standout performance. He captures the idealism of youth and the single mindedness that sometimes comes with it. He is well informed and well intentioned and seems to understand what his role in this campaign is as a white male better than his parents do. Eisenberg also rounds out a character that could be one note, by making the various contradictions of Alex, play as real. He is all idealism and activism, but he still has a very recognizable streak of parental resentment and we see another side of him that displays his own blindspot to privilege when he talks about his brother. Charlotte played by Lynnette R. Freeman is the one character who sees Alex and seems to understand him. They are on the same page for the most part politically and in their understanding of white privilege and art. But she also tries to temper his all or nothing thinking, by pointing out different perspectives and understanding others. Freeman is masterful in the way in which she reacts to the other actors. Much of the strength of her performance is in the way she allows us subtly to see her characters reactions and acceptance of human nature. Whereas Alex cannot let a single wrong word slide, Charlotte shows us she has the patience and the wisdom to realize there is a difference between being a bad human being and being misguided or deluded. When Alex argues with his parents he yells and uses profanity, when Charlotte disagrees for the most part she uses civil discourse, she states her truths and challenges theirs. Freeman is wonderful at showing us that she is the most rationale and truthful person in the room. And when it’s time for her to raise her voice, she has the power to do that as well. This is a very talented ensemble.
The White card is a play that educates us by making us question and process our understanding of race and art. It shows us that our interpretations of art and racism are based on our perspectives and to really understand either we need to shift our perspectives and come to an understanding from somewhere other than simply our own experience. I was familiar with the idea of white privilege, but this play made we think deeper about it and gave me a better understanding of the complexities that exist within that concept. It’s the sort of play that gives you a lot to unpack and discuss afterward, it was a very lively discussion in the car on the way home and also in my own head since I left the play. I come from a place of white privilege. I live somewhat in fear that I will say the wrong thing in this review and like Charles Spenser, with the best of intentions make things worse. I can tell you that I’m writing my reactions with positive intentions. That the play has illuminated things for me and that one of those is my own ignorance. It has reminded me to listen to those who understand this more than I do and made me think about “Privilege” . I think that is a start and reason enough to “hope”.
For more information and to purchase your tickets to The White Card visit https://penumbratheatre.org/