Written by Claudia Rankine
Directed by Natalie Ibu
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 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 Jean–Michel 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.
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.