Monday, March 5, 2018

The White Card: Be White, Baby

Patricia Kalember and Karen Pittman in The White Card. (Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

For the production of Claudia Rankine’s play The White Card, about race in contemporary America – a co-production of American Repertory Theater and Arts Emerson – scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez has built a black-box space inside the stage of Boston’s downtown Emerson Paramount Center. Except that it’s a white box, with the audience seated on painful white chairs, tennis-court style, on either side above the narrow cream-colored playing area (with matching furniture). The symbolism is painfully obvious. Moreover, having wriggled back and forth on those goddamn chairs for eighty intermissionless minutes, perhaps I may be permitted to advance the theory that the level of discomfort, too, is deliberate. Could this be director Diane Paulus’s take on Brechtian theatre – keeping the audience alert at what amounts to a droning lecture on white privilege by literally making us squirm?

Of course, Brecht, who was a showman to the core, would have thumbed his nose at a play like The White Card, which has no real characters, just figures standing in for points of view and delivering position papers. Charles (Daniel Gerroll), an art collector and the head of a foundation, and his wife Virginia (Patricia Kalember), a wealthy white couple who think of themselves as liberals, have invited a trendy black photographer, Charlotte (Karen Pittman), to dinner along with Eric (Jim Poulos), a member of the foundation’s board, in the hope of collecting her for the organization. The only other dinner guest is Charles and Virginia’s son Alex (Colton Ryan), a Black Lives Matter activist who can’t resist any opportunity to preach to his decidedly un-woke parents about their unwitting racist tendencies. Most of the proselytizing, of course, falls to Charlotte, who quickly discovers that Charles is guilty of every sin a moneyed white man who foolishly considers himself conscious can commit. The evening comes to a crashing halt when he proudly shows off his latest acquisition, a replica of Michael Brown’s autopsy diagram.

Rankine makes it clear whom she approves of: Charlotte, of course, who’s the only African American on the stage, and Alex, who has the grace (in her view) to flagellate himself for his whiteness. She gives Ginny a pass, sort of, because at last she puts her family first. Eric is an idiot. Charles is an idiot and a hypocrite, and, in case there isn’t enough reason to dislike him in the first ten minutes of the play, it turns out that he let his older son, a heroin-addicted bonds trader, go to prison when he could have saved him. But never fear: at the end Charles owns up to his whiteness, stripping to the waist and permitting Charlotte to photograph his lily-white skin, while she stands on a pedestal and enacts the role of the manacled slave.

If Rankine had some wit or even a sense of humor, the set-up might generate a few laughs, but she’s not exactly Jordan Peele making Get Out. In fact, based on this play (the only one of hers I’ve been subjected to), I’d say she’s not even remotely a dramatist. The only thing that defines The White Card as a play is that on the page, presumably, the characters’ names are printed with colons after them on the left side of the dialogue. And if I’d never seen anything else by Diane Paulus, I would have said she wasn’t a director either; I’ve rarely seen staging that’s so stiff and awkward. She must have thought that gussying up Rankine’s racial pronouncements by providing something for the audience to look at might be considered presumptuous, or maybe she was simply hamstrung. It would be nice to think it’s the latter – every now and then, possibly out of desperation, she has a character stroll up one of the aisles – but somehow I doubt it. The stark white walls, by the way, are used as projection screens, especially when Paulus wants to draw our attention to the symbolic import of a painting or photograph. I’m surprised she didn’t think of using PowerPoint to underscore the play’s talking points. Need I mention that the mostly white audience gave the play a standing ovation? As I headed for my car I couldn’t help giggling to myself because I suddenly flashed on Be Black, Baby, the downtown play in Brian De Palma’s early satirical comedy Hi, Mom! (1970) where earnest white audiences promised a taste of black life are robbed, raped and beaten and then, interviewed on the way out of the theatre, pronounce it moving and powerful.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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