Thursday 26th May 2022 at Leeds Playhouse.
Claudia Rankine’s The White Card explores the ways in which white people engage with the stories, experiences and art of Black people. It questions the motivation behind our consumption of such stories and how often white people engage at a privileged arm’s length rather than recognising themselves as being directly involved in the injustice we see.
We meet a white couple, their son and their art dealer on an important evening. They’re awaiting the arrival of a guest: an artist whose work – which depicts the victims of police brutality and acts of racism – they’re hoping to add to their collection. Estella Daniels is fantastic as the artist, Charlotte; a measured saint where many might entertain rage and a fearless individual willing to do the reflection she hopes for from others. She navigates the smarm, the offensive rhetoric and the overzealous attempts to show support with awe-inspiring patience and dignity. And, when faced with the flawed people who seek to own her work, she considers her own role in commodifying atrocities towards Black people – and shifts her focus.
Rankine’s characters include an intriguing bunch who offer conflicting takes on white allyship (or self-perceived allyship). When it comes to the blinkered wealthy couple collecting art which specifically depicts the trauma of Black people, what strikes as inappropriate and morbid to begin with only gets worse as we hear their hot takes on what they think it is that Charlotte does in her work. The writing does an awful lot by letting the deluded pair ramble on while the artist reacts; there’s limited need for the Black guest to educate the white hosts because the family increasingly expose their own flaws, and educate us by extension. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Rankine’s writing though is the way in which the tables are so smoothly turned and the explosive response to such perceived betrayal – a reaction completely devoid of any understanding of the irony in play.
As Charles, Matthew Pidgeon creates a good balance between palm-clasping sincerity and aggressive defensiveness lying just beneath the surface. Kate Copeland’s Virginia is very much the uptight wife who likes to show off her intellect and her family as much as she hates to be “upstaged”. Nick Blakeley’s take on the know-all art dealer is great – all arrogance and schmooze as he unwittingly helps to unpick layers of ignorance. And as the son, CJ Coleman brilliantly captures the exuberance of youth and the complexities of seeking to support and to be informed without over-stepping. He speaks a lot of sense but also manages to undermine his good intentions with flickers of insulting projection and presumptions along the way. Alex provides a kind of middle ground – a recognition of the need for white people to engage more fully but also a lesson in how to avoid monopolising.
In many ways this play echoes countless online debates and opinion pieces, looking at the damage caused by the manipulative tears of white women, pervading micro aggressions and white fragility. Natalie Ibu’s direction sees the tensions between characters take up physical space and it’s powerful to see the ways in which the family take up that space both literally and within the discourse. It’s also interesting that this play offers us not just an intensively intimate setting of a living space (fleshed out comfortably by Debbie Duru’s set design), but it also literally has all characters having a seat at the table, spotlighting how such situations allow for a spectrum of debate, albeit limited by the imbalance of perspectives at that table.
The White Card is engaging and at times gripping, but most of all it is very effective in delivering the weight of its messages through writing which illustrates rather than states. Its core message is seemingly simple: we need to stop being spectators waving futile ally flags and think more deeply about our consumption of Black trauma and our own role in the the continuation of injustice. Definitely work well worth seeing.
The White Card plays Leeds Playhouse until 4th June 2022 and you can find your tickets here.
Images credit: Wasi Daniju