Driving Mr. Daisy: “The White Card”

Karen Pittman and Daniel Gerroll in The White Card. Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography; Charlotte manages Charles’ microaggressions.

Presented by ArtsEmerson with the American Repertory Theatre
By Claudia Rankin
Directed by Diane Paulus
Dramaturgy by P. Carl

Feb. 24 – April 1, 2018
Emerson Paramount Center
Robert J. Orchard Stage
Boston, MA
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Reviews by Kitty Drexel and Noelani Kamelamela

(Boston, MA) The White Card is a conversation starter for those unused to discussing race at length. It’s for those who think we live in a post-racial society, the kind of person who resents the dialogue because there are “bigger problems” to fix. Other attributes include denying racism because they have imaginary Black friends, thinking “all lives matter,” and feeling threatened when any indication of their own culpability within society’s systemic racism. Those who have regular discussions on race, inequalities and the struggles for justice will have their work affirmed.

Charles (Daniel Gerroll) and Virginia (Patricia Kalember) are rich hobbyists that spend their pin money on the artwork of progressive Black artists. Alex (Colton Ryan), a living embodiment of angry Facebook posts, is their activist son. Eric (Jim Poulos) is their personal buyer. These four white people invited photographer Charlotte (Karen Pittman) to discuss her projects. Charles and Virginia intend to be patrons. Instead they are patronizing.

“Playing the race card” is a term used to exploit racist or anti-racist attitudes by falsely accusing someone of racism to gain advantage. Conversely, “playing the white card” would be exploiting one’s whiteness to gain unearned privilege.  Example: Despite having no experience or qualifications, reality TV star and ghastly human being D. Trump won the presidency by playing the white card. POC are made to feel melodramatic for demanding justice. White people expect respect for merely existing.

Rankin writes her white characters as affluent but otherwise typical baby boomers. They, like my parents, your boss, coworkers or church acquaintances can’t understand how their involvement in civil rights issues as problematic. Charles is a very rich man who thinks he finances the civil rights movement by purchasing the artwork of Black artists. This alone would be fine if Charles’ presence ended there. Instead, he wrongly assumes that his moneys puts Charlotte at his disposal. He invades her space, invalidates her artistic choices, and assumes her ignorance in all all matters. His assistance looks a like white supremacy.

The White Card creates a new theater space inside the Robert J. Orchard theater. The setup isn’t conducive getting around while differently abled. Wheelchair users must tell the box office of their need to be escorted backstage to a wheelchair elevator, then taken around the stage. Audience members using a cane or walker will have to walk up a short staircase to get inside the theatre. There are more steps to get to the seats. The all-white theatre space makes it difficult for the visually impaired to see the steps.

This production will be less accessible to neuroatypical patrons with light and sound sensitivity. The stage is a brilliant, bleach white to resemble a museum. Ambient noise and sound effects are heightened by bathroom-like, live acoustics. Earplugs and sunglasses are encouraged.

Please note that the environment is deliberately overwhelming. We are inundated with whiteness and noise. They represent racism’s omnipresence. We should not relax into whiteness.  

In the spirit of getting out of the way of POC voices, I’m going to shut up. Please continue reading to hear from Noe Kamelamela on her take of The White Card.

Review by Noelani Kamelamela

I am holding open Ijeoma Oluo’s book “So you want to talk about race” with a million tabs on my computer browser and phone browser open to works by and for people of color dissecting the histories and strategies related to discussing race.  I am not confident that I can explain my experience of The White Card.  I feel both wounded by these dialogues and healed in other places within myself.  Claudia Rankine has written a play that both pleases and frustrates me in equal measure.

Walking into the performance space at the Paramount for The White Card was a revelation.  The transformation of the space from a theatre into a white hall erases the history of the theatre and shifts the focus entirely.  White lights in the white space as well as use of moving and still projection on walls beyond the main action reinforces this idea of stage as museum.  Actors perform toward each other, their interactions exposed as if the audience were within the walls.  This space is an arena for ideas, with far too much space for people as they talk around each other, above each other, and through each other.  

The White Card is a provocative title.  When one is said to be playing the race card in an argument, that person is accusing someone of racism.  And racism can be devilishly specific.  So the Asian card would apply if someone was accusing another person of racism against Asians.  And the Black card would apply if someone was accusing another person of racism against a Black person.  We can play this card with different identities, not just racial ones.  

Yet the imagery this title evokes for me is not a tableau of a person constantly accusing someone of racism against white folks.  No, this title reminds me of inborn privilege and willful ignorance.  This title is a reminder that systemic racism works to enable white ignorance, prevent racial equality and support white supremacy, both the peaceful kind and the violent crimes as well.  The card itself remains invisible to white folks and so are many of the crimes.  Rankine reflects this well:  there is one Black character in a play that insists that Black Lives Matter.  There are two characters in this play that understand why asserting that Black Lives Matter is important.  The descriptions of violence never become unbearably graphic, but for folks who are feeling traumatized by an already racist atmosphere, this may be a good one to skip.  I felt myself wanting to run away the second or third time the one Black character was interrupted by a white person trying to whitesplain a problem.  And then the Black woman apologized.

It is painful to be reminded that those of us who care so much about ending racist violence also must assure all of these racists that they are in fact, the good racists and yes, we need and care about them.  Of course, of course, I love you, I say, holding onto the mementos of the dead, carrying the burdens of constantly being overlooked and having my opinions mistrusted or only trusted when they are buoyed by the opinions of other racist white people.  And these people who insist that they love and trust me would much rather love and trust other white people as they have been trained from birth to do. And these folks who promise to love me as an equal, they refuse to fully stand with me.  Many times, I find it awkward, and at least once or twice a year I get into knockdown full on screaming fights about racism.  And yes, this truth that white folks just don’t understand is presented frequently. Showing up once is for yourself.  Making a habit of showing up when it’s not your immediate concern and in your community or affecting those you identify as being in your community is beyond most folks.  

I am happy that these dialogues exist and that The White Card asks so many difficult questions.  The work has layers that can be peeled back to reveal different truths.  There is hope within it, a hope that seems rather joyless.  The world changes eventually.  Even if we have to drag ourselves backwards to go forwards and sideways to rise up, there is movement.  


Queen’s NoteArtsEmerson is known for bringing international acts to Boston. The American Repertory Theatre does not employ local actors. Students at the A.R.T./MXAT Institute must move to NYC in order to perform on the A.R.T.’s stage. Please consider this when deciding which shows to attend.

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