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The White Card

Claudia Rankine (playwright)

Natalie Ibu (director)

(Leeds Playhouse, on tour 8 June – 16 July)

Review by John Siddique


The actors appear on stage before the play begins – setting up a table for a dinner party. White room, white table, white furniture, art with white backgrounds on the walls, with text written on them indicating works by Robert Longo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Glenn Ligon. We are in the New York apartment of a couple of art collectors, Virginia (Kate Copeland) and Charles (Matthew Pidgeon). They are joined by their friend and fellow collector Eric (Nick Blakeley) to watch a tennis match featuring Serena Williams as they await the arrival of Charlotte, a Black artist who they hope to woo, to collect and invite onto their charitable foundation’s board to solve their racial representation problem. Charlotte’s photographs of restaged crime scenes in which Black people have been murdered are selling before they even get to market. For those familiar with Claudia Rankine’s book-length poem and lyric essays Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), it feels like we have re-entered that text – the objectifying language around the Williams sisters, and particularly Serena, cues the audience into who we are meeting here. These are the liberals that Malcolm X warned us about.

Charlotte (Estella Daniels) arrives, and the wooing begins, but over drinks before dinner each character reveals themselves and the underlying energy of who they are under their veneers. They will argue for these identities throughout the whole play, as the characters trick themselves into notions of wanting to help and support Black artists through their wealth and social status – an underlying sense of wanting to be seen as good people. Through the first half of the play, Charlotte seems to be buying into being commodified to support herself and her work. At least it will be out there and seen, right? As you can imagine, this dinner party is en route to hell as the veneer of well-meaningness quickly slides off when the most basic questions arise.

Before seeing the play, I’d read Claudia Rankine’s interview in the Financial Times in which she used three words to rewrite my entire concept of how these things work. If I were to try to pin down one of her major strengths as a thinker and writer, it is her ability to do this – to replace your working assumptions about what you see playing out in the world with a much more fundamental seeing. Those three words – ‘Internalised White Dominance’ – reconfigured for me the idea of ‘White Supremacy’. Viewing this play and the world at large through this lens brings a sea change in how to see the structures and layers of the Global North.

There is much to celebrate in this production. The whole creative team is the most diverse I’ve witnessed in a long time. We have the work of a writer of Claudia Rankine’s stature on stage in Leeds, and the play is an effective mirror held up to the audience questioning the processes of commodification. As it turns out, the art collectors are really collectors of ‘Black Death’, not celebrators of Black life. The couple’s son Alex (CJ Coleman) arrives a third of the way through the play, representing a person who is ‘trying to stand up for better ideals’ through his activism. Is his activism more identity commodification, or is it real? In many ways, the play is about the world’s refusal to see Black people and people of the global majority as human from a place in the heart. It is about the fear of feeling anything in case you may be found wanting, of not having the courage to say, ‘I don’t know, but here we are’. 

The White Card is a very wordy play with not much dramatic action, and at times, it can feel somewhat bludgeoning. I turned around occasionally to look at the audience and after the show spoke with a group of young people to see what they thought. The play is very much centred in North American aspects of Internalised White Dominance, which of course are very different from the British experience. Thankfully, we don’t have guns, but our internalised sense of white dominance leaves us quashed and killed spiritually just as readily. The beautifully mixed group of young people told me of their own experiences in the world, and that they liked the play but that they didn’t love it. I would concur. It is good that it exists, and the cast and stage team are wonderful, but it lacks a heart somehow, still being so rooted in the ‘internalised liberal’ idea that debate with those who seek to have power over our lives and deaths and language can change things. For all her protestations and the more empowering direction she takes in the second half of the play, Charlotte still ends up taking it upon herself to attempt to educate and open the heart of the collector and self-imagined saviour Charles.