The White Rhino Report Review: "The White Card" by Claudia Rankine Serves Up A Provocative and Dramatic Conversation about Race and White Privilege - A World Premiere

Publication date: 
March 3, 2018
Dr. Al Chase
On Wednesday of this week, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh proclaimed February 28, 2018 as "Claudia Rankine Day." There were many "Whereas" clauses explaining the reasoning behind such an honor. Poet Claudia Rankine, a Yale Professor, has been a MacArthur Grant recipient, and a bestselling author of a popular volume of poetry entitled Citizen:An American Lyric. In The White Card, she takes the themes explored poetically in Citizen, and explodes them into dramatic conflict among five characters. She serves up challenging dialogue the way that the Williams sisters blister serves across a tennis net.

The audience climbs a flight of stairs to enter the re-configured Robert J. Orchard Stage at the Emerson Paramount Center. The sound of tennis balls being volleyed back and forth can be heard. We sit in opposing grandstands in an all-white windowless room that feels like a combination racquetball court, large holding cell, and isolation chamber. But it becomes clear through the brilliant projections by Peter Nigrini of the Venue and Serena Williams competing against each other that tennis will be a metaphor for the conflicts playing out on the stage/court in front of us. A bonus of the divided seating is that audience members get to watch one another squirm as inconvenient truthes of white privilege are bandied about across the gaping fault line of racism and tone deafness. The innovative scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez, Costumes by Emilio Sosa, Lighting by Stephen Strawbridge, and Sound by Will Pickens draw us into the lives and conflicts among the characters.

Well-heeled businessman and art collector, Charles (Daniel Gerroll), has developed a strange desire to collect the work of artists who capture images of violence against people of color. He and his well-coiffed wife, Virginia (Patricia Kalember) have invited to their home their art adviser, Eric (Jim Poulos) and flavor-of-the-month photographer Charlotte (Karen Pittman). In an effort to try to avoid any social awkwardness with a black guest in the home, they have given their black maid the night off. Charles hopes to persuade Charlotte to allow him to purchase her latest works. Stirring the pot is Alex (Colton Ryan), the angry, adolescent, activist son of Charles and Diane. He enters the fray, having just returned from a Black Lives Matter Rally. He resents his parents, particularly his father's means of earning money, and the hypocrisy of the artistic proclivities of the pater familias. We have all the makings of a contentious mixed-doubles match.

Tension mounts as it becomes clear that Charles harbors some ideas of racial justice that are framed and filtered through his position of white privilege. Charlotte becomes increasingly agitated as philosophy of art morphs into world view conversation. In a set of subplots, it becomes evident that while Charles hopes to change the world through his enlightened art collection and his foundation, he has failed miserably in making any meaningful connections with his wife or son. Chekhovian disaffection is in the air.

The playwright serves up many layers of thought-provoking themes, none of which are amenable to facile or simplistic solutions. What role do well-meaning, and well-endowed white liberals have in entering the arena (tennis court, if you will) of the struggle for racial justice? Is it even possible to open the aperture and see beyond the lens of white privilege? Does putting on display examples of violence against black men and women objectify them, or can it lead to healthy discussion of the mindset that made such violence possible? The playwright wants us to squirm, but simultaneously implores us to stay in the room to wrestle with these issues - as individuals and as members of communities that are willing to engage in tough conversations.

And Act II of this play presents just such an opportunity for frank conversation among audience members. We were invited to stay, and were led by facilitators who served as catalysts in posing  questions like: "What struck you most within this play? What made you most uncomfortable?" On opening night, a healthy mixture of diverse and inclusive audience members made for a lively beginning of a conversation that could lead to meaningful change. I guess the "ball is in our court" to ensure that the conversation continues to deepen and leads to meaningful action.

The actors' skill and passion to tell this story were equal to the exalted level of artistry of Ms. Rankine, Ms. Paulus, and the rest of their visionary creative team. At a pivotal moment near the end of the play, it becomes clear that Charlotte's words over time have flayed Charles, and have stripped him naked in an emotional and existential sense. We see clear evidence that he has been moved to action - and to change - when he strips to his waist, exposing his lily white skin - not only to Charlotte's scathing language, but to her searching lens. It is an indelible image that punctuates one of the multiple messages of this majestic work of art and social engineering.

The play runs through April 1st, and should not be missed.

Enjoy - and engage!

Search form