Claudia Rankine on theater, race and staying in the room
On Thursday, poet, essayist and playwright Claudia Rankine spoke in conversation with theatre artist P. Carl at the Michigan Theater. The room was nearly full and buzzing with anticipation to hear Rankine speak about her new play, “The White Card,” written in conjunction with Carl.
“The White Card” began as an adaptation of Rankine’s bestselling collection of non-fiction poetry, “Citizen: An American Lyric.” “Citizen” extrapolates on the persistent racial tension between white and Black Americans, from racist micro-aggressions in supermarkets to overt racism in professional tennis, painting a painful and accurate picture of the myth of America’s “post-racial” society.
After touring with “Citizen,” Rankine decided that she wanted to create a play that was an entirely different entity than her collection. She discovered that the reading of “Citizen” was the least interesting part of her tour. She was more intrigued and inspired by the responses of the audiences she was reading to across the country, from the unwarranted hostility of white men to the bravery of young Black women.
She then determined that the collaborative and communicative energy of theatre would be the most beneficial setting for a new work, one that was written in response to what she’d witnessed in her audiences.
The aim of “The White Card” is to explore whiteness and to stage a continuous conversation around race, one that cannot be avoided on the premise of “good manners.” The play follows Charlotte Cummings, a young Black artist. Charlotte attends a dinner party with her husband hosted by white art dealers in New York City in hopes of selling her art to them. The dinner party quickly spirals into an incredibly racialized and hostile environment, written to explore the manifestation of racism in everyday life.
In reading this play, Rankine said that many young Black women asked the question, “Why did she stay in the room?” Though this made her hopeful, Rankine was also surprised by this response. In her experience, it was very uncommon to leave during a racist situation. It was more common to “stay in the room.” This is the dynamic that “The White Card” is exploring: the phenomenon of “staying in the room.”
Rankine and Carl elaborated on the difficult situations and dialogue within the play, with Carl claiming that Rankine was writing things that “no one would ever say.” Carl then caught himself, realizing that his experience as a white man was incredibly different than Rankine’s experience as a Black woman — the very theme that the play is encapsulating.
The play’s parallels to reality expand beyond Carl’s experience of collaborating with Rankine on the work. The economics of theatre heavily influenced the writing of “The White Card.” This economic consideration is difficult to grapple with in creating a work about race, given that consumers of theatre are primarily white, and the success of a play is essentially dependent on white people.
Rankine elaborated on this, speaking of the difficulty of accurately portraying what it is to be Black in America while also attempting to be careful of the potential discomfort of the white audiences the play would be performed for.
“This play is written for white people and they will be the audience,” Rankine said. “I can’t show the worst of them.”
The anxiety around the writing of the play for the sake of economics essentially centers around Rankine’s most prominent question: “How uncomfortable can we make white people?”
The conversation between Rankine and Carl around the process of the play was incredibly potent. The anxiety around conversations about race is omnipresent. Though these conversations are necessary and important, especially in today’s political environment, they are avoided — and this avoidance is usually in the name of white comfort.
Rankine and Carl had this conversation in front of a packed theater and continued it as white people began to walk toward the exit doors. Through “The White Card,” the conversation will persist.
White people must face the discomfort around conversations about racial aggression to understand it and to change it. We, now, must be the ones to stay in the room.