By: AM Larks & AE Santana
Claudia Rankine is the author of five collections of poetry, two plays, numerous video collaborations, and is the editor of several anthologies. Rankine has won the PEN Open Book Award and the PEN Literary Award, the NAACP Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and was a finalist for the National Book Award for her book Citizen. Rankine is the recipient of the Poets & Writers’ Jackson Poetry Prize and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts, in addition to other honors and awards.
The White Card by Claudia Rankine is two-scene play that features one black character, Charlotte Cummings, a Yale MFA graduate and a highly successful contemporary artist; and four white characters: Charles Hamilton Spencer, a “well-respected philanthropist” and “lover of contemporary art,” his wife Virginia Compton Spencer, the Spencers’ son Alex Compton-Spencer, an activist who is “deeply involved in current American politics,” and Eric Schmidt, the Spencers’ trusted art dealer. The Spencers invite Charlotte over to dinner in an attempt to convince her to sell her art to them.
The Coachella Review contributors A.E. Santana and A.M. Larks reviewed this play in an interview style with questions, responses, and replies in order to capture the conversation that theater, and specifically The White Card, is meant to evoke.
TO BOTH: What were your thoughts about reviewing this play?
A.E. SANTANA: Just the title, The White Card, made me wary. With negative experiences of being a woman of color I thought, “This is going to make me angry,” and while there were parts of the play that riled me a bit, I found myself feeling the warm, tight sensation in my chest that comes just before my eyes sting with tears and I realize not only how touched I am, but how validated and gratified I feel as well. As a Hispanic woman, I’ve dealt with racial injustice that was both institutionalized and personal—and it’s always the institutionalized racism that leaves me bewildered (I know how I feel and how I want to react to a straightforward attack). The White Card helped structure my thoughts on the conversation I wanted to have with people who are well-meaning, but just don’t understand what it’s like to…well, not be white. In reviewing The White Card, I wanted to keep a level head and look at the piece as unbiased as possible: critique structure, dialogue, staging, characterization, flow, etc. I like to think that I did. But The White Card is about a conversation, and so I was honest about my take on the play, not only as a theater critic, but also as a woman of color and as a writer. A.M. Larks and I only had Rankine’s words to go off (neither of us has seen a production of The White Card, yet!) and as women writers and friends I hope this review—this discussion—will showcase what is so amazing about Rankine’s The White Card.
A.M. LARKS: This play made me think long and hard about real world interactions. In writing, especially in playwriting because it is all dialogue, we consider things like power dynamics and subtext. When it is on the page it is easy to see and conceptualize these ideas because we are removed from them. But they exist in real life, for art can and does mimic this. Rankine was able to make those invisible dividing lines visible. The power dynamics of race. I am white so there is a subtext if I am opining on a black artist’s work, on its meaning, just as that subtext is here within my review of The White Card. A.E. Santana and I had a long discussion about whether or not to identify our individual ethnicities in this review, because in a formal review it isn’t typically done. We wondered: should it matter what a white woman or a Hispanic woman says about The White Card? What if I disagreed or disliked Rankine’s work, would my opinions be dismissed simply because I am white? While this is a possibility, it is something that happens to people of color all the time. But more to the point, Rankine wants us, all of us, to have an open and frank discussion about race, and that includes the fact that I am white. That is the subtext of my words in this review. It is the subtext of every conversation I have with anyone, anywhere, anytime. It will always be the subtext because I am a white American woman and America has had and still has major racial divides. The White Card made subtext visible and forced a real conversation about race.
AES: Dinner parties are popular settings to corral characters into conflict with one another. This is true in The White Card—in scene one, the Spencers have done their best to make Charlotte comfortable, yet their misguided efforts end up doing the opposite. How does the setting in scene one help create an atmosphere for chaos to erupt?
AML: The set-up of Charlotte Cummings, the black artist, coming over to the white art collectors Charles and Virginia Spencer’s home for dinner in The White Card is reminiscent of a Drawing Room play. The Drawing Room play was developed out of the real-life practice of entertaining a guest in one’s drawing room and are considered “society plays.” Society plays concentrate on subjects who are moneyed and of high and respectable society. The Spencers fit this description, being long-standing art collectors with a large home. Where The White Card diverges from a classic Drawing Room play is in its comedy of manners. Certainly, the set-up of four white people discussing the experience of being black with a black person or, even more specifically, four white collectors interpreting a black artist’s works for her sounds preposterous. The ignorance of the white characters verges on farcical incredulity, like a carrot telling an apple what it is like to grow on a tree. But this experience isn’t comical for the mere fact that it is real. While the characters may be fictional, the conversations are true.
It is this realism that makes The White Card akin to a living-room play, and in line with other contemporary playwrights, as discussed by Isaac Butler in “The Great American Living-Room Play Gets a Remodel,” in subverting the common tropes of “difficult fathers, family secrets, eccentric mothers, a compressed time scheme, money worries—and, well, white people” while simultaneously using them. So perhaps this is, in fact, a living-room play; if living-room is a uniquely American word, then America’s brand of racism is individual to us also, and a living-room play would be the appropriate vehicle for such a topic.
AES: The dinner party and, essentially, the living-room play really is a perfect scene for the commentary Rankin is making. How do people of color move through and fit into “white spaces”? How do white people treat people of color in these spaces? Are they really sharing the space? Or are they just making special accommodations for the time being, but think the space belongs to them and them alone? The Spencers opened their home and were hospitable to Charlotte, but as scene one moved on, it became apparent that Charlotte was still an outsider. During real dinner parties, guests are outsiders but there’s a hope that by the end everyone will be friends. In fiction, we know that’s not going to happen because we need tension and conflict to move the story along. The dinner party/living-room play was an intelligent choice to cultivate that tension and conflict. Not only does this setting utilize the natural atmosphere of rigidity and awkwardness of a traditional Drawing Room play, but it updates it for today’s social commentary, especially about white spaces and race.
AML: How does the preface affect your experience with the work? Do you think it’s necessary to understanding the work?
AES: While I don’t think the preface is necessary in understanding the work, I do think it helps guide the audience or give the audience the lens Rankine used while writing The White Card. This comes with pros and cons. With the play as a social commentary, the preface is a pro in creating a foundation for the work: as in, this is what the author was thinking, or this is the place she is coming from. It helps give focus to a topic that can easily be a sore spot for some people, and that sore spot may prompt slippery slopes and other fallacies. The preface keeps everyone on the same level. On the other hand, the con is that some believe giving a direct focus or guidance is the antithesis of what art is supposed to do or how we’re supposed to react to it. Watching this play without reading the preface allows the audience to find diverse insights other than what was originally intended, which may lead to imaginative perceptions.
AML: You bring up an interesting point about limiting the focus of the play. I hadn’t considered the negative effect of being attuned to the playwright’s intentions. I certainly concentrated on the social issues The White Card brings up because that is what Rankine intended. I wonder if other aspects of the play would have drawn my focus if I had not read that first. The play’s social commentary is very strong even without the guidance that the preface brings. However, I still feel that the preface brings up issues and makes a reader/audience member attuned to things they might not normally notice.
AES: At the end of scene one, Charlotte lays on the floor in front of the autopsy report, which is a strange, dramatic action to take, especially for someone who has been so calm and collected throughout the scene. Stranger still, it takes a while for the other characters to realize what she’s doing. It’s an odd choice—creating a surreal experience in a, so far, straightforward play—why do you think Rankine chose to create this melodramatic moment? In what ways does this work or not work?
AML: Charlotte is a reserved character on the page but as the tension builds, she cannot stay contained. It would not be realistic that someone would sit through an awful dinner and not have a reaction to it. The discussion by four white people about the proper way to display, collect, and express the black experience, who is more racist and/or privileged, and even what the black experience in America is, is incredulous. Therefore, Charlotte acts in an equal incredulous manner by lying down in the middle in the autopsy outline at the dinner party. Her lines of dialogue leading up this action are: “Is this what I am doing? Is this who I am?” This moment has the ability to be fairly comical, she may have simply given up trying to explain anything to these people.
However, during this discussion of “An Anatomy of Death,” Charlotte has a revelation about the impact and subject of her work. Just before the unveiling, Charles says to Charlotte: “This entire evening, my dear, is about your work.” This line hangs over the entire discussion of the other piece, because no matter which artist they are talking about, they are always talking about her and her work. She realizes that her art is part of a certain message and maybe is exasperated by it.
On another level, Charlotte’s actions directly relate the discussion she and the Spencers are having at that moment, when they unveil the artwork based on Michael Brown’s autopsy. The Spencers are excited about this piece and its ability to connect them to what they think has been invisible: experiences of being black in America. Additionally, the Spencers are unable to understand that by listing Michael Brown as another black man killed at the hands of the police, they are removing his individuality. One of Charlotte’s last lines before lying down is to try to convey this idea to the Spencers: “Any police report of my death would erase me as much as this autopsy erases Michael Brown.” Her ensuing actions can be seen as the symbolic embodiment of that statement. Charlotte is then erased, as she quite literally becomes the Michael Brown autopsy report.
AES: Charlotte’s actions definitely have multiple meanings. People certainly feel more than one emotion at a time, and Charlotte’s reaction is a great reflection of an overwhelmed person with a mass of emotions running through her: shock, disgust, hopelessness, disappointment, etc. It can be difficult to convey one emotion on the page and on stage, let alone a variety, but one action or one word—rightly placed, rightly preformed—can do it and make that felt. Rankine did an amazing job portraying that.
It certainly seemed as if Charlotte was just going to ignore the well-meaning, but totally clueless, white people until she realized what her current work meant to these collectors and that her well-meaning art was also part of the problem (or at least wasn’t helping). I don’t think Charlotte did this as a strategic move for the Spencers or Eric (to prove a point to them); this was for her. While seemingly out of character for Charlotte, this is an honest reaction—stripped of any politeness or sense of social conduct—just Charlotte feeling her feelings in front of a group of people who may never understand her.
AES: In the preface, Rankine discusses that the inspiration to write The White Card came from a conversation she wishes she had with a white man in her audience. In scene two, Charles is upset because he feels that Charlotte is lumping him and all white men together. Charlotte says, “Racism exists outside of reason. Black people have never been human,” illustrating her point that whether they are cast as “criminals,” “victims,” or some other idea, black people are not truly seen. In what ways is the conversation between Charlotte and Charles successful? In what ways does it fail?
AML: This is a continuation of the conversation at the end of scene one when Charlotte lies in the autopsy outline. What Charlotte does is explain, by way of example, that making Charles Spencer the subject of a piece of artwork (Exhibit C) reduces him in the way that the subjects of the artwork in his collection were reduced. He gets very angry and says, “You know nothing about me. You don’t know how I’ve lived my life. You have no idea what’s in my heart.” He is infuriated at the assumption that she can understand him, know him, from a single depiction of a single moment. Exactly what he was assuming, one year earlier, about her and her work, and all the other artwork in his collection. Charles finally sees his error: “It’s just skin and yet I know it’s power too.” To which Charlotte responds, “Dehumanizing power.” But the conversations about race and skin color don’t end there. Charles must face his own skin color, which he does by allowing himself to be photographed, by agreeing to be a subject. By the sheer fact that Charles is white, he is part of the conversation. He learns and faces up to that. But what about Virginia, his wife, Alex, his son, and Eric, the art dealer? They have no such realizations. While Charlotte and Charles are done talking, the larger conversation doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon.
AES: Charles’ hypocrisy really made me cringe, and I’m glad that Charlotte didn’t let him off easy when he made his realization. She dug deeper—pulled no punches—and if he really wanted to be part of the conversation, he had to deal with that. Charlotte says, “Charles, we were all raised wrong. Art is not going to change laws, but it might make apparent something we didn’t see about how we all grew up.” The kid gloves must come off, for everyone. I think one of the main points I took away from the conversation, from The White Card, was that everybody, not just black people or other minorities, need to be seen as human. Many agree that marginalized groups need to stop being dehumanized, but white people need to be humanized too. Yet not from a reduced state, but rather from a state of privilege. We’re all just regular people—normal humans—not sub-humans or superhuman. Some white people may see this as dehumanizing them or oppressing them, but it’s not—it’s just resetting the social mindset to equality. So maybe at the end of the play, Charles finally starts to understand, but it was like pulling teeth. Maybe it won’t be such a struggle for someone like Alex, but how much more difficult will it be for Virginia, who seemed the least progressive out of all the Spencers? I agree that the larger conversation isn’t near a conclusion, at all.
AML: The White Card is set in the current time period. Does this play resonate only because we are living through the time it has been set? Will it age well?
AES: Although The White Card is set in the present, the way the factual events are discussed in the play makes this piece timeless. While it does showcase the current state of affairs, the larger themes deal with not only current issues but also the history of racial injustice. We can hope that these issues will one day soon be a thing of the past but, unfortunately, I think we’ll be having this conversation for a while. Yet a “timely” need to have the conversation isn’t the reason why this play will be able to transcend generations (or is able to do so now). That reason comes from the structure of the play: here is the current state of affairs, here is the history, here is one side, here is another. The play is saying, “Let’s talk. This is what I want to talk about.” It has dramatized real conversations people from different races have had (or wanted to have). It has put into words and actions the thoughts and feelings many have harbored. The White Card showcases human nature, philosophical theories, and honest responses. What’s happening now will one day be talked about as history, and this play will still hold true because the conversation holds true. How people felt and continue to feel remains.
AML: I agree that The White Card will transcend generations (though I hadn’t thought about it in the context of structure). I attributed this quality to the way that racial inequality will always be part of our history in American and always relevant to tell whether it is because it is something we are still fighting or because it is something we fought and have put behind us. As Rankine writes in her preface: “…the aftermath of white supremacy…is all our problem.” It will always be all our problem. I also think that, while Charles and Charlotte’s debate about art is an integral point here, we need to do more than remember the victims. We need to remember all the parts of the narrative. Even our own complicity.
AML: What was your experience reading this play?
AES: Lots of people prefer art that makes them feel good. But an artist will sometimes want to make you feel uncomfortable. So, if the piece doesn’t make you feel good but made you stop, think, or feel something different, then the artist has still been successful. The White Card is about having the difficult, uncomfortable conversation about race, and discussing the roles everybody plays in a society teeming with racial injustice. The White Card made me feel uncomfortable, and I’m a woman of color. Maybe because so many of us (women and people of color) were raised to not “rock the boat.” But we can be civil and honest when talking about these topics, like Charlotte was. There’s no need to be nervous or afraid, especially since the conversation needs to be had. Sometimes I feel that the societal relationship between white people and people of color in America is much like an abusive marriage—we’re tied together, live together, but one of the people in the relationship has been hurting the other, gas lighting them, and the moment the other tries to stand up and protect themselves, the abuser acts as if they’re the victims. Abusive relationships are human issues. Racial injustice is a human issue—not just a black or Hispanic or other minority issue—an issue for everyone. The White Card reminded me how I feel, that I don’t have to be “polite” and say nothing.
AML: I think the ability to challenge us is one of the things I like most about theater. I agree that this play made me feel uncomfortable but, like you say, this is an uncomfortable subject to talk about. What gives me hope is that the conversation was had (within the play) and within the canon because this play was produced and published. These conversations can continue to be had because this play is out there. You and Rankine are both correct, we need to have these conversations and they will make us squirm, but maybe once we face it, we can move past it. As Robert Frost said, “The best way out is through.”
A.M. Larks writes fiction, nonfiction, and drama. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the current Fiction Editor at Please See Me literary magazine and she is the former Blog Editor of and current contributor to The Coachella Review. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University California Riverside Palm Desert’s low residency program. She lives in Northern California.
A.E. Santana is a Southern California native who writes horror and fantasy. She is the author of several short stories and plays. She received her Master of Fine Arts in fiction from the University of California, Riverside Palm Desert’s low residency program and has her bachelor’s degree in mass communications with a minor in script writing. She’s taught fine art, theatre, and writing. A.E. Santana is one of the founding playwrights for East Valley Rep and is the former Drama Editor for The Coachella Review. She has quite an affinity for cats. A.E. Santana can be found at www.aesantana.com and on Instagram and Twitter @foxflur.