Arts theater review

Photographing whiteness

‘The White Card’ examines racism within an elite white family with disappointing results

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Karen Pittman and Colton Ryan star in ‘The White Card.’
Courtesy of ArtsEmerson

The White Card
Directed by Diane Paulus
Written by Claudia Rankine
Emerson Paramount Center
Feb. 24 – April 1

Produced by the collaborative efforts of ArtsEmerson and the American Repertory Theater, the highly anticipated world premiere of Claudia Rankine’s The White Card unfortunately fails to deliver a satisfying experience. The White Card bares the hypocrisy of a liberal elite white family as they host a black photographer over dinner before the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Despite its promising premise, the play suffers from shallow characterization and forced dialogue, dulling what otherwise could have been a compelling narrative. These weaknesses ultimately lend the play an artificiality that is poisonous to shows tackling contemporary issues.

The events of The White Card are split into two scenes: the first is the aforementioned dinner party, while the second occurs a year afterwards. Charles (Daniel Gerroll), a wealthy businessman involved in real estate and construction, invites to dinner Charlotte (Karen Pittman), an African American artist whose work he is hoping to purchase from her. Other attendees include Charles’ wife Virginia (Patricia Kalember), his son Alex (Colton Ryan), and Eric (Jim Poulos), an associate of Charlotte. Each of the four white characters live and breathe race; their litany of recent injustices against black people, their admiration of black celebrities, and pontifications on the works of black artists form an impenetrable echo chamber that ironically interrupts and excludes Charlotte from discussion. Their differences are stereotypical and insubstantial: Charles in his old age is more conservative, Virginia is klutzy and protective of her son, and Alex is a rebellious Black Lives Matter activist who spites his father. The result is that the characters only exist as talking points as if scraped from an online comment section. With this lack of depth in characterization, their encyclopedic obsession with African Americans and extreme wealth make the characters feel distant and exotic instead of a realistic portrayal of whiteness that is crucial to the play’s narrative.

The second part of the play concerns a private encounter between Charles and Charlotte in Charlotte’s home. Here, the play finds better footing dramatically; inversions in power dynamics and fascination in another race are interesting. Charlotte, who might as well have been mute during the first scene, is more free to express her intent in depicting whiteness, allowing the direction of the play to become clearer.

Regarding the actors’ performances, the lack of realistic depth to the characters makes the effort a Herculean task. It seems unfair to judge an actor’s performance when their character spends most of their time prattling aspects of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Michelle Obama, the Charleston shooting, Black Lives Matter, etc.

In terms of staging, the scenic design is memorably striking. The audience surrounds the stage on both sides and the stage is stark white, which engages the audience since the writing rarely does. Unfortunately, it also serves a reminder to the play’s heavy-handedness and blandness.

The contents of this play invites comparisons to Oleanna, recently performed at New Repertory Theater, and Get Out, the Oscar-nominated film. While Oleanna did not concern race, its nuance in language in discussing political correctness makes The White Card pale in comparison. Get Out’s genre-bending in transforming morbidly fascinated white people to horrific body snatchers is also reminiscent here, as the white characters in The White Card effuse in their praise of the Williams sisters. With upper class family melodrama being the main source of tension however, the show drifts into farcical territory instead with the audience laughing whenever one of the white characters unknowingly says something offensive in front of Charlotte. Given that the play is drifting towards Tartuffe, it will need more than references to contemporary events to ground itself to reality.