Milford Daily News: ArtsEmerson will present the ‘The White Card’ beginning Feb. 24

Publication date: 
February 22, 2018
R. Scott Reedy
Can American society progress if whiteness stays invisible?

That’s the question posed by Claudia Rankine in her new play, The White Card, which further explores issues the author, poet, and MacArthur Fellow raised in her best-selling 2014 collection of non-fiction poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric, exploring the subtle but significant ways racism rears its ugly head in everyday life.

ArtsEmerson will present the world premiere of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) production of The White Card, beginning Feb. 24 at the Emerson Paramount Center in Boston.

In the play, a young, black artist, Charlotte Cummings (Karen Pittman), and an art dealer, Eric (Jim Poulos) are guests at a Manhattan dinner party given by affluent, white art patrons, Charles (Daniel Gerroll) and Virginia (Patricia Kalember), joined by their son, Alex (Colton Ryan). Charlotte and her husband hope to sell some of her art to the collectors.

Before long, however, the good-mannered gathering devolves into rancor and bitterness, dividing along racial lines and raising questions of whether it’s Charlotte’s art – or something or someone else – that is really on display.

For Citizen: An American Lyric, Rankine – the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University and a chancellor of the American Academy of Poets – received the PEN Open Book Award and the PEN Literary Award, the NAACP Image Award in Poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and many other honors.

Her third play, The White Card, was commissioned by Boston’s ArtsEmerson in association with the A.R.T. in Cambridge. It is being directed in Boston by A.R.T. artistic director and Tony Award winner Diane Paulus (Pippin), with dramaturgy by Emerson College Distinguished Artist-in-Residence and Ford Foundation Art of Change Fellow P. Carl.

The Jamaican-born Rankine – educated at Williams College and Columbia University – was in Portland, Oregon, on a speaking engagement recently when she made time for an early-morning telephone call.

Q: When and why did you first become interested in whiteness as an issue?

A: “Around the early 2000s, when I was working on ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely,’ I began to be troubled by the way so many narratives were half-narratives. Often what got left out was the investment of whites in controlling the outcomes.

“It was then that I began to feel that no story was complete unless it told as much of the whole truth as it could.

“Some white people can’t stand seeing black people get ahead. Anti-black racism remains very much a cornerstone of our democracy.”

Q: Do you find that white people want to talk about whiteness?

A: “I think our present political situation has made it clear to most Americans that there is still very much an institutional investment in whiteness in this country. America has always been oriented to whiteness – otherwise we wouldn’t need diversity programs.

“We’ve been schooled at every turn to value white norms. And even those norms have to be kept up. How many white women dye their hair blond because that’s an accepted standard for what’s considered beautiful?

“And for the Asian population, for the Arab population, for the black population, we all know that whiteness is the most valuable thing. Not white people, but whiteness. That’s why people all over the world are using things like bleaching creams.

“They want the jobs, they want what whiteness affords white people. It’s the way it is.”

Q: Do people of color want to talk about whiteness?

A: “We all want to exist in the same history, with the same knowledge base. We all want to understand race and how it affects the justice system, housing, and so much more. Blacks know these things, but they want others to know them, too.

“I think black people have different orientations around the silencing of the truth of what we’ve faced and, in many cases, still face. We’ve tried every approach – from Marcus Garvey encouraging blacks to return to their African ancestral lands, to the Civil Rights Movement, and more. Black Americans are Americans. This country is as much ours as anyone’s.”

Q: Can whiteness be understood in the same way by white people and people of color?

A: “Institutionally, yes. It is easiest to understand when it’s not about individual white people, but more about what a person accepts in order to benefit from whiteness. The 2017 Women’s March was stunning. Imagine if all those women had shown up when Trayvon Martin was shot.

“You have to look at the things you show up for to see who you really are. We all have our own lives, and the days are short. But while most of us didn’t sign up to be activists, there is an outrage that should come when a police officer shoots into a car with a four-year-old in the back seat.”

Q: When you interact with white people, do you find some of them going out of their way to prove that they’re not racist?

A: “You can usually tell when a white person is not fully on board with racism. It takes a lot of work, after all, to be actively involved in anything.”

Q: How do you think racism affected the presidency of Barack Obama?

A: “Obama, for all he did, was just one man – working with much the same House and Senate that we have today. He could not have made radical change and turned everything around. We did make positive moves on gay marriage, mass incarceration, climate change, and DACA – all things that are being rolled back today. During the Obama presidency, I often heard white people say, ‘We gave him a chance.’”

Q: What has it been like collaborating with both ArtsEmerson and the A.R.T. on this project?

A: “What is most fantastic about working with this team is that they’re as in it as I am. Diane Paulus is one of a kind. When I think of her as my director, I can’t help but ask myself, ‘How did I get this lucky?’

“And I was also given the gift of P. Carl as my dramaturg. He is the one who suggested that we get the A.R.T. involved and it was he who first engaged Diane Paulus and executive producer Diane Borger.

“It was really crucial to have their help. I haven’t written many plays and they are both seasoned theater people. Working with the two Dianes has been a dream come true.

“The actors are great, too. With a play like this, you are charting new territory, so you need an experienced and talented cast. And we definitely got that with this company.”

Q: Theater audiences are often white people, many of whom are older. What impact might that have on The White Card?

A: “That’s one of the things that has made working with ArtsEmerson so vital to this project. David Dower, the artistic director, and David Howse, the executive director, have done a phenomenal job getting everyone in the theater. When you’re in an ArtsEmerson audience, you’re surrounded by Boston as it is today.”

Q: Who do you most want to see this play?

A: “People who live in this country and are subject to this culture and this government. I’m asking real questions so I hope that the play is not only entertaining, but also useful. I want the audience to think about the questions.

“We’ll have facilitated conversations after every performance. I think every play should have talk-backs. It gives audiences a great opportunity to discuss the experience they’ve just shared.

“The play draws no conclusions. It is more about how conversations around race get derailed, and start over, and what misconceptions occur along the way in those conversations. It’s an exploration.”

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