First published in The Times, Thursday May 5 2022
The dinner table has been laid, the first bottle has been opened and the audience is about to be served chewy questions of race and white privilege. We are guests in the tastefully appointed, austere home of Charles and Virginia (Matthew Pidgeon and Kate Copeland), a liberal white couple whose wealth has found focus in a foundation for emerging artists. The guest of honour is Charlotte (Estella Daniels), a talented photographer who specialises in images of aggression towards African-Americans.
Race is the elephant in the room in Claudia Rankine’s play, even prior to Charlotte’s arrival. For starters, the couple’s black maid has been sent home for the evening. As the hors d’oeuvres are passed around, the couple are keen to demonstrate their sympathy for the black community. They point out the artworks in their collection by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Glenn Ligon, profess their love of Serena Williams, and wring their hands at recent deaths of black Americans involving police officers.
Charles’s avowed focus for the evening is on what his foundation can do to promote Charlotte’s work. Tension breaks out when the artist, backed up by the couple’s activist son, Alex (CJ Coleman), holds up a mirror to Charles’s smug, white-saviour attitudes. Rather than surrounding himself with images of black suffering, Charlotte suggests, perhaps Charles should interrogate the privilege afforded by whiteness.
The White Card is the first play by Rankine, the acclaimed American poet, and in dramatising the insidious racial prejudice that belies respectable society, she doesn’t entirely avoid the heavy-handedness of polemic. At times — especially in the play’s coda, in which artist and benefactor pick up the debate one year later — their back-and-forth feels schematic rather than dramatic, with a bewildered, defensive Charles on one side and Charlotte, now in the comfort zone of her studio, on the other.
The play finds its mark, both in Rankine’s writing and in Natalie Ibu’s tightly orchestrated, intelligent production, in telling details. A supreme moment of light relief arrives when Charles uncorks an extremely fine pinot noir and Charlotte assesses its worth in fluent French, much to the bemusement of her hosts. Even the well-intentioned Alex is not above whitesplaining or cutting across Charlotte to top up his glass.
As an audience our sympathies are directed towards Charlotte’s lonely predicament, made poignant by Daniels’s controlled, watchful performance. We are also periodically jolted out of our own complacency, notably during a sequence in which a supporting ensemble of black women hold up literal mirrors, to show us the sea of white faces staring back.
To May 14, then touring to July 16, northernstage.co.uk