Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
This is the posh Tribeca apartment of uber-wealthy art collectors Virginia and Charles Spencer, and the setting for the first scene in Claudia Rankine's furiously insightful one-act play The White Card. Penumbra Theater is presenting the second fully staged production of the play, following its premiere as a co-commission of Arts Emerson and the American Repertory Theater in Boston. Rankine is best known for poetry and criticism, almost all of it addressing race in American society. Her award-winning poem "Citizen: An American Lyric" was adapted into a stage work and presented by the Frank Theatre in 2017, and her collaboration with choreographer Will Rawls, What Remains, has been presented at the Walker Art Center. The White Card is Rankine's first published play.
The play takes place in March, 2017, just two months after Donald Trump's inauguration as President of the United States, an historical backdrop that informs the work. Virginia and Charles' famed art collection is focused on works depicting the oppression of African Americans by mainstream society, though the Spencers, like their décor, are white. Charles, who accumulated his wealth through real estate and construction, became obsessed with supporting artists who document the disgrace of American racism as a way of channeling his inability to explain hideous acts of violence against persons of color to his two young sons, who are now in their twenties. Alex is a student at Columbia who is fervent about social injustice, which includes protesting the new administration and taking part in Black Lives Matter actions. We do not meet son Tim for reasons made clear in the course of the play.
The Spencers are having a dinner for rising star African-American artist Charlotte Cummings, a photographer who uses her media to cut through the mask of civility to reveal racialized violence. Charles would love to bring her into his stable (Charles' term) of artists by funding her work. The dinner also includes Eric Schmidt, an urbane art dealer who represents Charlotte and sits on the board of the Spencer Foundation. We get a pretty good idea that things may not go well when, after telling Eric they gave Lily the night off, neither Charles nor Virginia rise to get the door after Charlotte rings the bell, so practiced are they in having their black maid do it. And when Charles criticizes Colin Kaepernick's bent knee protests against racial injustice, he concludes with a cheery "More champagne?"
Scene two takes place almost a year later in Charlotte's studio. Charles pays an impromptu visit, still trying to win Charlotte's favor and bring her work into his collection, while expressing dismay at the direction of her work in her most recent exhibition. Charles' motivation, however well meant, and the reality of his proprietary relationship with the artists he supports are at odds with Charlotte's experience of injustice, the very substance of the art Charles means to pay for. The two are at an impasse that spirals into a crescendo that chillingly illuminates the mash-up of impotence and rage both feel.
Rankine has crafted conversation that sparkles with wit, while unspooling volumes of truth. In the first scene, the conversation feels like the authentic babble of dinner party guests, a bit awkward at first, then loosening their tongues in proportion to the volume of alcohol consumed. Scene one depicts an event as it might really happen, laced with laughs and uncomfortable moments of recognition. Scene two is more a construct of stagecraft. It feels unlikely that Charlotte would have tolerated Charles' intrusion into her studio, but once she does, their dialogue becomes an increasingly honest search for a shaft of truth, the white benefactor grasping to understand where his generosity and regard for the work of the black artist goes astray. It is less familiar than scene one, and more incisive and potent.
Talvin Wilks has shown skill in balancing measures of compassion and hard truth directing such plays as The Ballad of Emmett Till and Benevolence on the Penumbra stage. His direction here is equally adroit, depicting the Spencers' distracted attention to their own domestic turmoil that causes them to practically ignore the wounds they have inflicted on their honored guest. In the second scene confrontation between Charles and Charlotte, Wilks enables us to see how, bit by bit, Charlotte's willingness to face the truth grinds away at Charles' belief in the unbending rightness of his efforts.
Lynette R. Freeman, a New York-based actor making her Twin Cities debut, is a powerful force as Charlotte. She presents the artist as a strong woman who does not suffer fools, with the courage to follow up on her own doubts and search for a more clarifying truth. Charlotte would have good reason to throw Charles out of her studio, but Freeman makes us understand why Charlotte would allow him to stay, bringing meaning to their encounter, in spite of the risk of Charles' aggression. Bill McCallum gives a blistering performance as Charles, showing the tycoon's arrogance at the onset, doing good as a high-roller art collector, then in his face-off with Charlotte, depicting both anger and despair as he recognizes the Sisyphean nature of his aim.
Michelle O'Neil is vibrant as Virginia, fumbling over obstacles her racially tinted blinders prevent her from seeing, but owning her own heated emotions to take the part of her own flesh and blood over the needs of the suffering multitudes. As Alex, Jay Owen Eisenberg is a charmer as he captures the enthusiastic righteousness of youth and calling out his parents for not living up to their stated values, while skirting around the ease with which his privilege allows him to make those charges. John Catron has the least to do as Eric. He effectively conveys the contented affluence of his milieu, as well as the panic of a middleman trying to calm down two parties he hopes to draw together in a deal.
Those blank panels on the walls of the Spencer's home are filled with specific works by artistsRobert Rauschenberg, Robert Longo, Glen Ligon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gilles Peress, Jeff Wall, and Kerry James Marshallreferred to in the play. These and other images are seamlessly displayed through the work of projections supervisor Emmet Kowler. Light (Marcus Dilliard), sound (John Acarregui), and costume design (Mathew LeFebvre) are all first rate.
The final image of The White Card prompts a challenge in the form of a question: what next? Rankine does not suggest simple solutions, certainly no road map or bulleted plan for erasing racism from society's playing field. When Charles objects to Charlotte's contention that racism persists because it exists outside of reason, calling her statement "so hopeless," Charlotte leans into his words, replying "Go further into that hopelessness, and then we can begin to see each other."
How prepared are we, as a nation, to go into the hopelessness? The White Card offers a searing suggestion that only then can we begin to rebuild something that might resemble hope. It is powerfully unsettling theater. To extend it from stage into life will take courage, humility, and a measure of faith that transcends hopelessness, but what are our other options?
The White Card runs through March 1, 2020, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Adults -$40.00, seniors 62+ $35.00, college students with valid ID - $15.00, one ticket per ID. For tickets call 651-224-3180 or go to www.penumbratheatre.org.
Playwright: Claudia Rankine; Director: Talvin Wilks; Scenic Design: Chelsea M. Warren; Costume Design: Mathew LeFebvre; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design: John Acarregui; Projection Design: Kathy Maxwell; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Associate Lighting Designer: Smaida Mara; Projections Supervisor: Emmet Kowler; Technical Director: Zeb Hults; Stage Manager: Mary K. Winchell; Assistant Stage Manager: Charlie Holm; Producer: Sarah Bellamy.
Cast: John Catron (Eric), Jay Own Eisenberg (Alex), Lynette R. Freeman (Charlotte), Bill McCallum (Charles), Michelle O'Neill (Virginia).