Rankine’s The White Card Debuts at NYPL

On June 6, poet, essayist, playwright, and 2016 MacArthur Fellow Claudia Rankine launched the New York premiere of her first published play, a new one-act called The White Card, at the New York Public Library (NYPL) Steven A. Schwarzman building.

Claudia Rankine at LIVE from the NYPL
Photo courtesy of NYPL

On June 6, poet, essayist, playwright, and 2016 MacArthur Fellow Claudia Rankine launched the New York premiere of her first published play, a new one-act called The White Card (Graywolf Pr.; LJ 4/19), at the New York Public Library (NYPL) Steven A. Schwarzman building. (The White Card was commissioned by ArtsEmerson and the American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, MA, and the world premiere was produced by A.R.T. and presented by ArtsEmerson in 2018.) Proceeds from the nearly sold-out event’s $40 tickets went to benefit NYPL programming.

"LIVE from the NYPL presents today's best conversations to challenge and provoke, inspire and enlighten," Aidan Flax-Clark, manager of public programs for NYPL, told LJ. "Claudia Rankine has designed exactly such a conversation on the subject of race with The White Card. We leapt at the opportunity to share its first New York performance and to highlight this vital work from a writer who we not only admire immensely but who also happens to be one of our own Library Lions."

Described as a play that unravels the “conceptions and constructions of whiteness,” Rankine’s work acknowledges the nuances surrounding America’s cultural legacy of systemic racism and discrimination. Many believed that Donald Trump’s victory was an anomaly that represented only the very worst of America. Through the lens of The White Card, Trump’s presidency is shown to be the magnification of a state of “normalcy” that many would rather ignore or pretend doesn’t exist.

The play, presented in a slightly abridged version, opens in the impeccably polished home of Virginia and Charles Spencer, a wealthy, white Manhattan couple whose voracious appetite for collecting contemporary art is as sprawling as their political and elite connections. The Spencers are hosting an intimate dinner party for Charlotte Cummings, a black woman and rising star in the art world. They intend to buy Charlotte’s art.

The Spencers have two sons: Tim, a heroin addict who does not appear on stage, and Alex, an undergraduate student who is thoroughly disgusted by his parents’ power and privilege. In what seems to be a display of equal parts misguided sincerity and determination to rebel against his parents’ contradictory beliefs, Alex has recently committed to activism. He joined the Black Lives Matter movement (in spite of objections from black members) and regularly attends anti-Trump protests. Unlike his mother and father, Alex doesn’t hesitate to call out white supremacy. He takes pleasure in condemning his parents, and during the course of the evening continuously seeks Charlotte’s approval.

As the evening carries on, the conversation eventually implodes, pulling back the curtain on the supposedly “post-racial” facade of the Spencers. A year later, Charles unexpectedly visits Charlotte at her studio, hoping to rectify the disastrous outcome of the dinner. Instead of reconciliation, their conversation further exposes Charles’s cognitive dissonance and his inability to truly see himself.

In an interview with author Morgan Jerkins for Vulture, Rankine said, “The idea of white benevolence is based on their desire to share their good fortune, as in actual fortune. If you’re not understanding how you came to that fortune, you really feel like you’re doing other people a favor. I wanted to show that it comes from the place of wanting to help without admitting how you also contributed to the crippling of black Americans in this country.”

The White Card refuses strict binary classifications: the notion of separating humanity into either “good” or “evil” is a myopic exercise that flattens the spectrum of human behavior. For Charlotte, white benevolence becomes sinister when the act is motivated by the need to be a white savior, the self-serving compulsion to assuage guilt. In other words, “good” white people can be racist, too. Charlotte realizes this during the course of dinner; Charles shows that his financial contribution to black arts is motivated by his need to be viewed as a “good” white person. Even though he champions black artists, his real estate company invests in and builds private prisons, which Alex points out overwhelmingly incarcerate black citizens. Charles conveniently ignores this fact and thinks it has no correlation to his overall involvement in race relations or the larger cultural discussion about race.

Charles and Virginia use their power and privilege in a conditional way. They think of racism and white supremacy only in terms of tangible examples: white nationalists loudly parading through town streets, overt racial slurs, modern-day lynchings. They dismiss the reality of microaggressions, the commonality of police brutality, and the exploitative for-profit prison system—anything that falls outside of their imagined narrative.

In their minds, racism is a problem reserved for other people. Their decision to support black art is indisputable proof that they are not only racially tolerant but also more progressive than most white people. They are convinced that they are on the “right” side of history. Whenever Charlotte challenges their responses, she’s met with resistance and deflection. At one point, when Charles expresses his disapproval for Colin Kaepernick, she asks, “Objecting to racism means you're childish?”

The Spencers want Charlotte to happily fill the role of sole representative of the black community, simultaneously a spokesperson and an echo chamber to affirm their moral superiority. She is the elusive one “black friend” that white liberals use as a shield against critiques of their problematic views on race. At the beginning of the play, Charles is speaking to  Eric, a white art dealer who arranged the meeting between Charlotte and the Spencers. Charles says, “Charlotte is one of us”—a comment that reveals his monolithic construction of blackness, in which black identity is defined by the negative stereotypes and caricatures created and sustained by white supremacy.

Charlotte sees past their performative social enlightenment. Rankine skillfully heightens the tension until it reaches a crescendo. Charles unveils a piece of art that he’s titled “Anatomy of a Death.” The work is actually the autopsy report of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager from Ferguson, MO, who was shot and killed by a white police officer. Charles is moved by the outline of the murdered teenager because the blatant display of black death is proof of racism’s existence. He tells Charlotte, “If I collect your dead, they’ll never be buried.”

For Charlotte, this is an exhibition of the dehumanizing consequences of black suffering for profit, the selling of the black body to the highest bidder. The couple views the suffering ingrained in the work as a beneficial teaching moment, a lesson in pathology. The reveal of the art causes Charlotte to question her own involvement in the machine that is institutionalized racism.

Following the performance, in a question and answer session with Diane Paulus, director of the American Repertory Theater, Rankine recounted a story in which a white man approached her after a talk. After gushing over Rankine’s work, he asked in regard to race relations, “What can I do for you?” Rankine said, “I’m good.... You should ask what can you do for yourself.” The man didn’t like Rankine’s answer and rudely responded, then later emailed her with a faux apology indicating that he thought he was still in the right for asking the question.

The White Card isn’t interested in solutions wherein black people serve as race relations officers, taking on the emotionally draining burden of teaching the oppressor. The conversation surrounding race and racism will never have a quick fix. Yet for Rankine, we keep repeating the same mistakes, relighting the same fires, because we’ve been conditioned to follow one of America’s favorite past times: forgetting.

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