Claudia Rankine’s new play brings stubborn conversations to the stage

Wednesday, April 3, 2019 - 9:37pm

Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine Buy this photo
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It is only rational to expect wonders from Claudia Rankine. It would be foolish not to, really, especially after her unflinching “Citizen: An American Lyric,” a masterpiece that received uncountable awards and that has already bled — with seeming permanence — into the University of Michigan’s English department. Rankine is often lionized for her unique capacity to address race and expose its biased-invisibility in poetry. Imagine the literary world’s excitement, then, upon the news that Rankine had written a play.

“The White Card” is Rankine’s newest work to appear between stage wings, and it is violently visceral. The play is about a couple of art collectors and a Black artist, all three placed in the precarious aftermath of the entrance of the Trump administration. The couple, Charles and Virginia Spencer, in tandem with their art dealer Eric, invite Charlotte over in an attempt to woo her into selling art to Charles’ collection and foundation. It’s an objectively good match — fantastic artist, hungry art collectors. But it is also a precarious match: Charlotte’s art centers on the Black experience and its nuances, trying to offer a lens into the space where few are allowed. Charles and Virginia are white, both with a near-obsessive desire to do good politically, collecting art pieces on the experience of Black suffering. By the time the Spencers’ activist son, Alex, joins the dinner a quarter of the way into the play, the tension is choking.

Much of “The White Card,” to an extent, feels like that scene in “Get Out” — the one where Rose’s father, to the wince of the audience, goes out of his way to tell Chris that he “would have voted for Obama for a third time.” It is an unveiled attempt to pander to a Black man and to assuage one’s own white guilt, to convince oneself that they are the opposite of racist and to justify it to a person of color.

The entirety of “The White Card” is brimming with experiences like this, though Rankine takes things a step further. For one, the Spencers’ underlying tones are in check by their son. Though more importantly, the Spencers are not deliberate racists. They are both white and liberal advocates (or they try to be). They work outwardly to, in their view, combat racism by purchasing Black work.

Obviously, the classical white liberal in the era of Trump is a controversial and complex arc to examine. Delightfully, Rankine is not deterred.

Rankine’s judicious work on character make the two scenes of play even more provocative for readers. Each member of the six-person cast is placed deftly in the play, each stuffed full of lines almost uncomfortable with their specificity and attention to detail. It’s a design that makes attention crucial for readers, but one that pays off — readers pick up on tics and shortcomings of each character. Subtle, inappropriate remarks from the Spencers and Charlotte’s reaction to them feel so accurate that it’s nearly painful. Rankine uses the medium of conversation to flip the switch and reveal a conversation’s unbearable tensions in a single line. Characters always feel as though they are getting at something — each line of conversation seems to be a nod to an ideology or canned statement we employ when we discuss race. Rankine uses this cast of characters to offer a display of the white, unsure, mediocre liberal at its finest. Then for the final, stirring scene, she flips this on its head: She addresses such shortcomings head on.

Admittedly, there comes a point in “The White Card” where things began to feel counterfeit. Rankine’s commentary on race and politics are fantastic, but it feels as though that was all she had to talk about. Virginia Spencer speaks an almost unbelievable roll of accidentally insensitive comments, and Alex cannot go a line, it seems, without calling out his parents’ shortcomings.  While this is not dry, it sometimes feels constructed and artificial. It appears as though Rankine felt the need to check off every possible encounter one could have with race in the span of a single work.

Maybe, though, this is what “The White Card” is meant to be. In all of its cringe-worthy moments, awkward silences and unmuted realizations, “The White Card” is — an all-encompassing conversation centered on race for a new age of activism and change. A conversation in a complex, brash voice that examines culpability and what progress means. It is time, probably, that we listen to this conversation. And “The White Card” offers it to audiences from a stage where veils are removed for every viewer to see.