Theater / Film
Claudia Rankine examines racial privilege in GableStage’s ‘The White Card’
The characters played by Tom Wahl, Barbara Sloan, Iain Batchelor and Joshua Hernandez get unexpected reactions from Charlotte, played by Rita Cole, in GableStage’s “The White Card.” (Photo/Magnus Stark)
When celebrated poet, playwright and essayist Claudia Rankine was promoting her 2014 book, “Citizen: An American Lyric,” a middle-aged white man (Rankine’s descriptors for him) rose during a question-and-answer session to ask, “What can I do for you? How can I help you?”
The response from the thoughtful, thought-provoking artist and academic was not what he was expecting.
“I think the question you should be asking is what you can do for you,” she replied – which did not sit well with him, to put it mildly.
“If that is how you answer questions, then no one will ask you anything,” she recalled him saying, and his palpable anger took Rankine by surprise.
From that exchange, that inciting moment, a piece of stage art was born. Rankine makes the connection in the preface to her play, “The White Card,” a drama aimed at encouraging examination of white dominance and anti-Black racism in American life.
Premiering in 2018 in Boston in a joint production by ArtsEmerson and the American Repertory Theater, “The White Card” was produced again just before the pandemic shutdown by Saint Paul’s venerable Penumbra Theatre, Minnesota’s only professional Black theater company.
Now “The White Card” is coming to life onstage again, this time at GableStage in Coral Gables’ historic Biltmore Hotel.
Originally scheduled to open in mid-January, the production was delayed due to the surge in the Omicron variant of COVID-19. The show’s official opening night is Feb. 26 – which also happens to be the 10-year anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting. That tragedy and so many subsequent ones, the human cost exacted by racism, ripple through Rankine’s taut script about a “woke” white contemporary art collector and the rising-star Black photographer whose work he wants to acquire.
Rankine, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (aka the “Genius Grant”) in 2016, was born in Jamaica and raised in the Bronx, earning degrees from Williams College and Columbia University. She received the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and a host of other awards for “Citizen,” and she has taught at a number of top-tier universities – currently, at New York University.
Rankine and husband John Lucas, a white photographer and filmmaker who sometimes collaborates with her, plan to be in South Florida for the opening weekend of “The White Card.” During a recent phone interview, the poet said that the shock of her questioner’s reaction at the “Citizen” presentation sparked ideas.
“It’s one thing to express the pain of anti-Black racism. It’s another to think about what it means to have dominance, to walk around with complete mobility, to understand the mechanism of rage at having to share,” she said. “Theater is not passively being able to take what you want and leave the rest. Theater involves taking from one body into another. That’s how I got from ‘Citizen’ to ‘The White Card,’ from the page to the theater.”
GableStage producing artistic director Bari Newport saw the Boston production of “The White Card” while she was running the Penobscot Theatre Co. in Maine; Newport and her husband, photographer Magnus Stark, are friends with Rankine and Lucas. Looking around at the mostly white theatergoers at that Boston performance, then watching the play, Newport realized “The White Card” was reaching its intended audience.
“A core idea of the play is to unpack the idea of racism itself – and that racism isn’t ‘someone else’s problem.’ It isn’t a Black problem. It is a white person’s problem, and nothing will change unless we look in the mirror,” she noted in an email, adding that she had thought she’d feel guilty after watching the play.
Instead, she said, it “spoke to me with invigorating humor and with a fresh poeticism, which left me deeply thinking about difficult subjects with a different perspective.”
To give GableStage audiences the chance to have the deepest communal engagement with “The White Card,” the play is the only one in the season that won’t be streamed. Every performance will be followed by an optional discussion led by Katie Christie of Voices United, a Miami nonprofit aimed at fostering cross-cultural understanding through the arts.
What audiences will witness is a play about a 1-percenter, Charles Hamilton Spencer (played by Tom Wahl), a Manhattan developer, philanthropist and champion of diverse artists; and Charlotte Cummings (played by Rita Cole through March 6, then by Lela Elam), a prize-winning photographer poised to enter the international art market.
Charles and his wife, Virginia Compton Spencer (Barbara Sloan), have invited Charlotte to their sleek all-white Tribeca loft at the behest of Eric Schmidt (Iain Batchelor), an art dealer who serves as a key adviser to the couple. Over a getting-to-know-you dinner, the idea of the Spencer Art Collection acquiring some of Charlotte’s work will be on the table – as will many, many more ideas, including those of the Spencers’ younger son, Alex (Joshua Hernandez), an outspoken Columbia University student and activist in the Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) movement.
The pieces on the couple’s walls were stipulated by the playwright and most are, with the notable exception of Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Painting,” art depicting violence against Black people. Robert Longo’s “Untitled (Ferguson Police, August 13, 2014)” is there. So is Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “The Death of Michael Stewart.”
“I wanted to have the art embody the arguments in the play,” Rankine said. “Violence is encoded in the pieces, but they’re pieces Virginia’s character could live with.”
Directing “The White Card” at GableStage is Lydia Fort. The in-demand regional theater director, and assistant professor at Atlanta’s Emory University, said researching each play she stages is part of what she loves about the job, but this one “was more like stepping into a history that is my own.”
In rehearsals, Fort focused on creating a safe space for her actors to explore and express their thoughts.
“Having one Black woman in a cast of white actors is always challenging. Then to have the play be about race puts pressure on the person of color,” she said. “Part of it is me being a teacher and wanting to have something for everyone to learn – what Claudia is asking the audience to do. Otherwise, people start putting up walls. They don’t want to be personally judged … And always, you want to make a great play.”
Wahl and his fellow actors sing Fort’s praises.
“She is amazing in every way. So thoughtful, caring and considerate. We’re dealing with some deep stuff … and she didn’t want anyone to feel they have to apologize,” said Wahl, who in recent years has played some tough, manipulative men – most notably in another play about racism: GableStage’s 2018 production of Bruce Graham’s “White Guy on the Bus,” in which Wahl played the title role opposite Cole.
In taking on “The White Card” and working to make Charles a fully fleshed-out character rather than the unambiguous villain of the piece, Wahl said he has learned a lot about himself, white privilege and the sudden sting of microaggressions.
“One day, Lydia, Rita and I were walking into the Biltmore entrance, and an employee said, ‘Good morning, sir.’ He ignored Rita and Lydia. I pointed it out to them, and they both shrugged and said, ‘That happens to us all the time – there’s no closure to that,’” he recalled. “What bothers me is that I didn’t say anything when it happened.”
Because of the rescheduled “White Card” dates, two Carbonell Award-winning actors will take turns playing Charlotte.
Cole, who was already committed to Palm Beach Dramaworks’ March 30-April 17 production of Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” will portray Charlotte through March 6.
“Our American pastimes are sports and forgetting. But if you don’t forget, maybe you will work to make a change,” Cole said. “I’m glad audience members will have the chance for talkbacks and discussion vs. talking in the car on the way home. If you share your reaction in a public space, you can digest it. Talking is the first step that brings acknowledgement.”
In preparing to play Charlotte, the actor spoke with Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, a sorority sister of Cole’s mother, and tapped into the specifics of the art world via her own sister, a painter. As for being a Black artist in a society built around white dominance, she said, “I live in my skin every day.”
As a student at the University of Central Florida, she was cast as the lead in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Person of Szechwan,” a parable set in China. At one performance, she heard loud shouting from the audience. She learned afterward that an older white couple had stormed out of the theater, gone to the box office and canceled subscription seats they had held for almost three decades.
Elam, who will begin playing Charlotte on March 9, said the role is “one of the closest characters to myself that I’ve ever played.” The New World School of the Arts graduate remembers, as a child, getting lots of comments along the lines of, “Oh, you’re so well-spoken.”
“It was an insult meant as a compliment. I wanted to say, ‘Yeah, and I live in a house too,’” she said, of the microaggressions that are all too familiar to so many Black Americans. “I have a lot of experience with this. A lot of times, I’m the only Black girl in the room.”
Elam said she acknowledges the desire for societal change on the part of white people appalled by anti-Black racism. But the responsibility for that change, she believes, rests with them.
“I’m tired of having conversations with people who should know better. I’m not giving out any more passes or educating people. That’s not my job,” she said. “There are lots of books people can read. They can go to museums and libraries, if they really want to.”
“The White Card,” Sloan said, offers a fresh, beautifully written, nuanced way for Rankine to share her perspective on the intricate intertwining of white privilege and racism – an issue so urgent that the playwright used money from her MacArthur grant to establish The Racial Imaginary Institute, a think tank for artists and activists.
With the play, “she has decided to say: Come, get on this train with me and go where I go so you can see what I see,” Sloan said.
Batchelor, who grew up in Wales and began his acting career there, says that in playing the “White Card” art dealer, he is portraying “someone with a moral and social compass a world away from my own.”
That said, he admires Rankine’s finesse as a playwright.
“She makes very, very awkward and uncomfortable conversations very palatable. It goes down smoothly,” he observed. “Then she turns a switch, and you realize, ‘Oh my god. I’ve been complicit in all of this.’
“Her points are clear and incisive. I hope the audience will take them away too. [The play] asks you to check again what you think you know about racism and what you think you’re doing. The idea of a safe space to examine these things cannot be understated. The ability to hear someone out and not react in an impulsive way is nearly impossible.”
Along with her prize-winning career as a successful writer of prose, poetry, theater and multimedia works, Rankine remains a teacher, and the response to her work can be vast.
A 2019 New York Times magazine piece she wrote (“I Wanted To Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked.”) has drawn more than 2,000 online comments and more than 200 letters sent directly to Rankine. Her most recent book, 2020’s “Just Us: An American Conversation,” continues her exploration of white privilege, as does her new commissioned play, “Help,” which is scheduled to premiere at The Shed in Manhattan on March 15.
“People [sometimes] say to me, ‘Why are you preaching to the converted?’ We want to think that liberal white America is different from, better than. But the commitment to white dominance wouldn’t have existed without a collusion across party lines,” she said. “When we started The Racial Imaginary Institute, people would say, ‘What are you talking about?’ Now, everyone understands.”
WHAT: “The White Card” by Claudia Rankine
WHEN: Preview 8 p.m. Feb. 25; regular performances 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays; through March 27
WHERE: GableStage in The Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables
COST: $40-$70 (processing fee additional; discounts available for students, groups, artists, military, veterans and Biltmore staff members)
SAFETY PROTOCOLS: Masks and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test required; visit gablestage.org/healthsafety for more details
INFORMATION: 305-445-1119; gablestage.org
To read Christine Dolen’s review for “The White Card,” click here.