THE WHITE CARD

Estella Daniels. Image by Wasi Daniju

Written by Claudia Rankine

Directed by Natalie Ibu

HOME

Claudia Rankine’s first play forensically dissects the debate around white privilege and guilt in a world where collecting  artworks of black deaths is perceived by some as more worthy than taking an unflinching look at why white skin remains invisible. The White Card is a cool, clinical look at themes of art, race, suffering, discrimination and patronage. Written in 2019, it predates the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests and highlights an America that is increasingly racially divided. Rankine places a cultured  black artist at a dinner party with her privileged white hosts and invites her audience to sit back and watch as the conversation implodes.

The White Card. Image by Wasi Daniju

The dinner party from hell includes wealthy, liberal hosts Charles and Virginia, their woke son Alex, their obsequious art broker friend Eric, and Charlotte, a successful black artist who they hope to impress with their patronage. The first half plays out a number of  classic racial faux pas as Virginia mixes up the identity of her guest with another black artist she had previously met and later in the party delivers the ultimate cringe worthy comment. The first half focuses primarily on highly intellectual and rather stiff conversations around American artists such as JeanMichel Basquiat and Robert Longo interspersed with details of numerous, horrific race hate crimes. The dialogue is debate heavy with little action and is undoubtedly interesting, however the degree of detail and the volume of factual information involved makes for a somewhat heavy, rather plodding script. The characters are all very well played by the actors especially Estella Daniels who brings so much nuance to her character Charlotte. The main issue is that the pacing doesn’t quite work and the result is a play with fascinating subject matter that somehow remains quite flat and static. The characters are so elite that they feel largely unrelatable and the core theme of the play about the invisibility of whiteness risks getting greyed out by the equally stark, unspoken visibility of class.

Image by Wasi Daniju

The set design by Debbie Duru looks fabulous and perfectly conveys a sleek, minimalist Manhattan loft apartment. Everything screams whiteness including the male protagonist’s carefully curated art collection despite its content. All the paintings are blank with their subject matter of black suffering conveyed starkly by their titles simply written on white canvases. In the second half the cleverly crafted set reveals Charlotte’s much more personal studio workspace.

It is the second half where the dialogue becomes more richly human rather than cerebral. The energy and drama of the set change accompanied by the thrombing beat of Childish Gambino‘s This is America seem to breathe life and colour into the proceedings. It’s one year on from the disastrous party where Charlotte’s artwork was compared to Charles’ latest acquisition which is a sculptural piece that included the autopsy report for Michael Brown. The artist has profoundly changed her style and is now making work to make the invisible visible instead of photographing renactments of black trauma. When Charles comes to her studio he is bewildered by her shift and is aghast to discover that it is his white skin on display in her latest exhibition. The great white curator has been redacted down to simply become Exhibit C.

This is a genuinely fascinating piece of theatre and definitely provokes dialogue on complex subject matter. The performances are all strong and perfectly pitched especially those of Estella Daniels and Matthew Pidgeon. I really wanted to love this piece but somehow this dissemination of race issues that affect all of us feels too elitist and removed from the everyday conversation we all need to be having if things are to ever truly change.

HOME 18th – 21st May 2022

On tour Leeds Playhouse 24th May – 4th June 2022

Birmingham Rep Theatre 8th – 18th June 2022

Soho Theatre 21st June – 16th July 2022

TREE

Created by Idris Elba & Kwame Kwei-Armah

Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah

Manchester International Festival

Upper Campfield Market Hall

Tree certainly helped to get the party vibe going at the launch night of MIF19. Walking into Upper Campfield Market Hall the club night was in full swing. The huge stepped circular stage and runway platform were filled with dancers and audience members. There was a real energy and dynamism in the space that was coming from the audience as well as the performers. So far so good as this production has had it’s fair share of bad press this week with very measured and detailed statements from writers Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley who worked on the project until last year claiming to have been unceremoniously kicked off. Co-creator and Director Kwame Kwei-Armah seemed to want to take the project in another direction and these women are now uncredited for their contribution.

So what does Tree actually have to say in its tale of personal loss and the bloody history of South Africa? Influenced by the loss of his father in the same year as the death of Nelson Mandela, his filming of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and making his album Mi Mandela Idris Elba was inspired to create a piece of musical theatre. The subsequent end result, working closely with Director Kwame Kwei-Armah blends drama, music and dance as a young mixed race Londoner travels to South Africa to place his mother’s ashes by his father’s grave. Tree is an attempt to confront the ghosts of a fractured family history while also seeking to reconcile with the turbulent history of this complex country.

Through conversations with the living and dreamlike sequences watching history play out below him Kaleo delves into the tragic origins of his parents love affair and the bitter outcome of that love during Apartheid. Theatre blends with riotous dance that spills of the stage as audience participation is encouraged during riot scenes and celebratory dance scenes. There is a lot to like in this piece which has a strong cast including Sinéad Cusack, Alfred Enoch and Patrice Naiambana and it is beautifully staged. The tech team of Jon Clark, Paul Arditti and Duncan McLean have done a wonderful job of lighting, sound and projection which make for something quite special.

The story told is not new or unique but it is clearly personal to many who lived through or are still living in the shadows of South Africa’s past and forging a new and fairer society. Sadly that is where I have issues with Tree as in the enthusiasm to embrace so much the central characters are never fully fleshed out. These creations deserve more respect and fleshing out to fully understand the complexities of living through Apartheid. This still feels like a young sapling rather than a mighty oak. Hopefully it will grow and develop the strong roots that this ambitious project was clearly striving for.

Upper Campfield Market 4-13 July 2019

Young Vic 29th July- 24th August 2019

Images credit Marc Brenner