Penumbra Theatre's 'The White Card' shows how the deck is really stacked

Caroline Yang

Caroline Yang

“Playing the race card” is an offensive idiom when it comes from the mouths of white people who seem to resent the fact that they don’t have any “cards” to play. In The White Card, Claudia Rankine suggests that they should examine their own hands a little more carefully.

The white characters in Rankine’s 2018 play, now onstage at Penumbra Theatre, certainly have a lot to say about the experiences of black people. Charles (Bill McCallum) and Virginia (Michelle O’Neill) are a middle-aged couple who’ve devoted much of their extraordinary wealth to art addressing African-American trauma: Representations of violence hang on the walls of their home alongside a monochromatic white painting by Robert Rauschenberg.

“It was curated to brighten the room,” says Charles when a visitor remarks upon that piece. The visitor is Charlotte (Lynnette R. Freeman), an artist whose current work involves restaging and photographing the scene of the 2015 Charleston church shooting. With Charlotte’s star on the rise, Charles and Virginia want to buy her latest series; their art dealer, Eric (John Catron), is on hand, nervously, to assist.

Charlotte is the only black character in the cast, which also includes Alex (Jay Owen Eisenberg), the adult son of Charles and Virginia. Using these characters, Rankine illuminates the differences and similarities in the ways ostensibly sympathetic white people talk about race.

Charles and Virginia glory in supporting important work that decries racism, but their dialogue is full of slips that reveal their privilege. Penumbra’s opening-night audience didn’t miss them, and neither does Alex, an activist involved with Black Lives Matter. He’s quick to criticize his parents, but also thinks he can lecture Charlotte about how she needs to “wake up.” Eric is more politic, but he’s also part of an art-world hierarchy built on white supremacy.

While it takes the characters a while to get at the play’s deepest truths, there’s also not a lot of unnecessary small talk or extraneous stage business. At a tight 80 minutes, The White Card is a focused conversation about race and art. Instead of congratulating themselves for marking black pain, Charlotte argues, white people should do the harder work of looking at the way they inhabit their own skin.

It’s a bracing play from a major writer with a local connection: Rankine’s acclaimed Citizen: An American Lyric is published by Minneapolis’s Graywolf Press (as is The White Card, her first published play). At Penumbra, director Talvin Wilks keeps the pace taut, making effective use of a sprawling all-white stage designed by Chelsea M. Warren.

The cast bring out the texture and humor in an often declamatory script; everyone except the increasingly concerned Charlotte spends most of the play on the defensive, which can happen when people are asked to examine their privilege. It’s an important conversation that needs to continue.

The White Card
Penumbra Theatre
270 N. Kent St., St. Paul
651-224-3180; through March 1