Nearly every seat in the Michigan Theater’s main auditorium was filled Thursday night to hear poet and essayist Claudia Rankine discuss her transition from print to the stage, as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series.
Rankine was joined onstage by P. Carl, an accomplished theater artist, who collaborated with Rankine to bring her new play, “The White Card”, to the Emerson Paramount Center in Boston. The play is set to premiere on Feb.4.
“The White Card” follows the story of Charlotte Cummings, a Black artist who visits the home of two white prominent art dealers in New York City. The tensions that unfold around the dinner table when Charlotte arrives reflect Rankine’s interest in unpacking racism in everyday life.
Rankine also spoke about being on tour for her New York Times best-seller “Citizen: An American Lyric,” a collection of poetry that reflects racial aggressions in the 21st century. Rankine noted her experience during question and answer sessions following her book readings were what inspired her play.
“The beginning of the process really began as I toured with ‘Citizen’, I got to the point where the reading of ‘Citizen’ at these readings was the least interesting part for me,” Rankine said. “What I really wanted to hear was what the audience wanted to say.”
According to Rankine, the dynamic of these conversations elicited the central question of “The White Card”.
“That idea, how do you stage a conversation around race that continues, that doesn’t get shut down because of good manners or is able to ride the tide of good manners, and still come back to the questions on the table,” Rankine said. “That became the generator for ‘The White Card’.”
Both Rankine and Carl grappled with the challenge of engaging theater attendees and maintaining an honest discourse of whiteness in America while working on “The White Card.”
The economics of theater, as described by Carl, is often centered around the reality that the primary consumers of theater are white.
“It has been an interesting learning curve for me as an artist of trying to figure out how do we present this play in a way that makes people want to stay in the room and have the conversation, but also feels real and true,” Carl said.
Rankine described the artistic negotiation that occurs between profitability and authenticity within the theater business. She said the amount of thought she and her collaborators have given this negotiation has been one of the most of surprising aspects of her creative process.
“So, suddenly, you have this thing you are trying to make, and you are trying for the thing to be a reflection of the life you are living and the life you are seeing, but you also have to be careful because the life possibility of the thing you are making is dependent on the generosity of the subject of the play,” Rankine said. “There is a lot of anxiety around that.”
Rackham graduate student Daniella Toosie-Watson, a first-year fellow in the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, said she was inspired by Rankine’s willingness to engage in dialogue and was able to empathize with Rankine through her own experiences as a writer within the classroom.
“I realized as I was sitting here that I have really been writing as if I am going to teach particularly white people how to read my work,” Toosie-Watson said. “I realized I made them my audience, and I have been making them my audience, and that is something I did not use to do.”
Rackham graduate student YoungEun Yook, third-year fellow in the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, said Rankine’s perspective left her with questions about how to be a meaningful contributor to the modern-day artistic space.
“What got to me was when she was talking about the #MeToo movements and the conversation that is happening right now about what the women are doing to stay in the room,” Yook said. “And I was just considering what does that mean for us as artists, as women of color.”