Race, power and privilege at play in ‘The White Card’

Three actors rehearse on a stage.
From left, Michelle O'Neill, John Catron and Lynette R. Freeman rehearse a scene in Penumbra Theatre's production of "The White Card" in St. Paul on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In the play "The White Card," now in production at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, an art collector and his wife have invited an up-and-coming artist to their home for dinner, with the hopes of acquiring her work.

The collector is white, the artist is black.

What unfolds is a smart, critical look at race, power and privilege in the art world and the commodification of black suffering. The play explores the way white supremacy thrives among even the seemingly most well-intended liberals.

Headshot of Claudia Rankine, smiling
Playwright and poet Claudia Rankine
Blue Flower Arts

The playwright of "The White Card" is better known for her poetry. Claudia Rankine is the author of "Citizen," a collection of poems and essays that garnered national praise for its searing portrayal of racism in America. She says the idea for "The White Card" came while she was on a speaking tour for "Citizen."

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A white middle-aged man in the audience asked how he could help her, as though he was in no way connected to the systems of white supremacy. She suggested he should instead ask how he can help himself. Her response angered him.

"In a way, I'm grateful for that moment because it made me realize how uncharted the territory for conversations around race is in our public spheres,” she said. “And so I wrote ‘The White Card’ because I wanted to see what it would be like for bodies to hold certain language and respond to each other in real time and what that would look like for an audience."

"The White Card" examines the words and actions of self-described liberal white people who are blind to their own involvement in racist power structures. Charles, the art collector, is proud that his collection is focused on the work of black artists addressing police violence. Their art covers the walls of his stylish home, but to what end?

"Who are these things for?” Rankine asked. “As white people consume their stories or images of black pain, how is that functioning for them?"

Rankine said she became acutely aware that when the word race is used, it doesn't contain whiteness. But black pain and institutional racism can't exist without it.

Five actors rehearse on a white stage.
From left, Jay Owen Eisenberg, Lynette R. Freeman, Bill McCallum, John Catron and Michelle O'Neill rehearse a scene from Penumbra Theatre's production of "The White Card" in St. Paul on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Director Talvin Wilkes said "The White Card" is a perfect fit for Penumbra Theatre, whose mission is to stage plays about the African American experience.

"If you're going to talk about blackness, you have to talk about whiteness,” Wilkes said. “And in some ways, I think we were always going to have to come to this play because even the thought of the whole idea of celebrating and affirming sort of black identity, black culture, if you're really thinking about progressive ideas, you're also having to deal with institutional racism and that history. And then if we say there is a social construct around race, then we're dealing with that construct around whiteness as well."

Wilkes said the play essentially asks white audience members to step outside themselves and dispassionately observe their own role in maintaining white supremacy.

"How do we make you your subject? It's the central question in the piece," Wilkes said.

“The White Card” opens tonight at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul and runs through March 1.