In its UK debut at HOME, Claudia Rankine’s first published play, The White Card poses the question: can society progress when whiteness remains invisible?
Written against a backdrop of an increasingly racially divided American and shortly before the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, The White Card is as tense and uncomfortable as you might imagine.
Allow me to set the literal scene.
We have the wealthy american epitome of white privilege in Charles (Matthew Pidgeon) and Virginia (Kate Copeland). He’s a property developer (including private prisons…) he’s liberal (check out the juxtaposition of his loose fitting suit and white trainers) he and his wife collect ‘black trauma’ art and they have a pitch perfect smug art dealer friend Eric (Nick Blakeley) who has invited black artist Charlotte (Estella Daniels) to dinner at their apartment.
They are courting her, hoping to buy and add a piece of her art to their collection.
Should she allow them to.
Charles and Virginia may as well have unfurled a banner saying, ‘we hate racism, we do’, such were their efforts to identify, sympathise, prove themselves as allies.
And so we have a classic dinner party set-up, invoking thoughts of Woody Allen films (sorry), The Last Supper, the seminal Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner…it’s a well-trodden trope for a reason and one I personally relish in.
Both in theatre set-ups and in life, it’s the perfect host for polite chat, followed by passionate debate followed by all out war, truth-telling and tears in the kitchen.
There’s often a direct correlation here between how much wine is poured to how much tea is spilled, and this was no exception.
The dialogue kept the controversial and inappropriate moments coming, all of varying degrees of subtlety. Some comments blink and you almost miss them, but perhaps one person’s blink is another person’s eyes wide open stare, is another person’s eyes firmly closed.
And so the examination for the extent of my own ignorance begins…
Very early on in the dinner we had the mistaken identification of one black woman for another black woman, ‘that wasn’t me’, we had ‘no the other black author’, we had a raised eyebrow at Charlotte knowing fluent French when here was Virginia explaining the meaning to her of just one French word.
Indeed we went from Virginia black celebrity name-dropping (Serena Williams- tick, Michelle Obama – tick) to exclamations directed to Charlotte of
Oh yes. That was a ‘sharp inward take of breath’ moment in Theatre 1.
We have the son Alex (CJ Coleman) who has joined Black Lives Matter and attends Trump
The couple’s pursuit in collecting ‘black trauma art’ is their privileged act of alliance. And Charlotte was here to hold a mirror upto this, refusing to allow her art of recreated moments of racism to become part of this collection of canvas misfires; misfire not in the art itself, but in the intention behind the purchase and the nature of the buyers’ posturing.
The play’s conclusion, almost epilogue, turned the table and perhaps gave Charles his most important life lesson yet. He became the subject, his whiteness became the subject, his whiteness as a black trauma tourist became the subject.
And he didn’t like it. But with that he was a step closer to getting ‘it’. As were we all.
Let’s keep talking and get this sliding scale ultimately going further and further in the right direction. Because when there is an inherent comprehension of an issue, we’re less likely to ‘trip ourselves up’ and get rightly called out on what might seemingly be just a word or platitude in the wrong direction.
And I’m sure my own well-meaning rhetoric is unintentionally littered with missteps, which is why plays such as The White Card must continue to be written and seen. So we can know what we thought we did but actually didn’t after all.
I love Theatre, I do.
The White Card is showing at HOME until 21 May 2022.
Photo credits: Wasi Daniju
Written by Claudia Rankine and directed by Natalie Ibu.
Nick Blakeley Eric
C J Coleman Alex
Kate Copeland Virginia
Estella Daniels Charlotte
Christine Gomes Charlotte
Matthew Pidgeon Charles
Natalie Ibu Director
Claudia Rankine Writer
Debbie Duru Set & Costume Design
Roma Yagnik Sound Designer
Rajiv Pattani Lighting Design
Rachael Nanyonjo Movement Director
Wabriya King Production Dramatherapist
Eleanor Manners Dialect Coach
Rachid Sabitri Fight Director
Naomi Daley Wardrobe Supervisor
Wambui Hardcastle Assistant Director (RTYDS)
Lauren Lister BSL Interpreter
A Northern Stage, Leeds Playhouse, Birmingham Rep and Soho Theatre co-production in association with HOME Manchester.