I normally try to post my reviews the day after I have seen the event but The White Card requires so much research and re-editing that it has taken me far longer than normal to put finger to keyboard and press ‘Publish’.
As you will deduce from the opening paragraph, this is not a play you can appreciate by just popping along to see what it is all about. For a start it is written by an American, set in New York and, although the actors are British, they speak with US accents. Naturally we have all seen so much tv and film from across the pond that that should not be a problem, but there are countless references to specific black people in America, that, even for someone who takes more than a passing interest in world current affairs, some of them were lost on me.
The work is a conversational piece meaning that the writer has to get inside the heads of the characters in order to interpret the situation in which they find themselves from each of their perspectives. It is a technique used many times before, usually to advance the standpoint of the author. I have no problem with that as all plays are written to make a point, my only concerns about this one were that it is derivative and I don’t understand who the target audience is.
I am acquainted with the laws of libel well enough to refrain from even implying that this is a copy of Art by Yasmina Reza, but I am sure that I could plead the defence of ‘fair comment’ to the tort of defamation by saying that it is surely ‘influenced’ by that work. Both are set in opulent apartments owned by wealthy art collectors, both concern the purchase of an ‘artwork’, both chart the disintegration of the relationships between the characters and both have one of them change profoundly during the play. I used the word ‘influenced’ and I stick by it, but I also think that this might have been deliberate rather than subconscious, as the author, Claudia Rankine, admits to her practice of using her ‘reading, references and quotes’ and ‘referential-speak’ to answer questions. In The White Card, it is not only the ‘speak’ which is referential, but one of the paintings in the apartment is plain white with a few raised brush strokes, as was the one which was the catalyst in Art.
The only difference was that in Art, there were characters who had depth and soul and with whom, although minted, the audience could identify. Those in The White Card are as shallow as a stream in a drought. I will leave the comparisons there and look at The White Card on its own merits.
The scene is a minimalist New York apartment where Charles, a very successful business man, and his wife, Virginia, are holding a dinner party for Charlotte, a black photographer from whom Charles wants to buy a new piece. He has asked his art dealer friend, Eric to be there as well. Eric has informed Charles that Charlotte only sells her work to people whose credentials she has vetted, hence the dinner. The dinner will be a buffet as the couple have given their (black) maid the night off.
There are a lot of not so subtle references to their wealth and lifestyle, the first one being when their guest arrives and no one goes to the door to let her in as they have forgotten they have no maid in attendance. Copious amounts of Champagne are consumed before dinner, mostly by Eric, who manages to pinpoint the origin of the pinot noir decanted for dinner, with one sip. The dessert wine is made from grapes which have been frozen on the vine to add sweetness. I have absolutely nothing against opulence and enjoying the good things in life, but found myself being somewhat alienated from the characters mindset by this time as it was for effect rather than pure enjoyment.
Enter Charlotte, the photographer, who is a graduate of a photographic academy in Nîmes in the South of France. In order to impress Charlotte Charles had displayed his pieces by black artists, one of which was a screen print of a quote about The Million Man March on Washington. There was later a ceremonial unveiling of a new piece – sorry, I said I wouldn’t draw anymore comparisons with ART – which turned out to be the Autopsy Report of Michael Stewart. To save you looking it up, Michael Stewart was a graffiti artist who died after being arrested by transit police for tagging a subway wall in 1983.
The final member of the cast was Alex, the son of Charles and Virginia, who appears after attending a protest rally. He joined Black Lives Matter after the death of George Floyd where he was treated with suspicion for being white. He seemed to be a serial protester for whatever the current cause was.
Having covered all the bases, the discussion turned to race and how black people are regarded by whites and also how white people see themselves, basically accepting their entitlement as being a natural attribute. Obviously, the more that Charles tried to show how right-on he was, the more gaffes he made, as did Alex. Virginia just kept asking why we just couldn’t be nice to each other.
Although there was no formal interval there were two scenes, the second in Charlotte’s studio some months after the dinner party. The stage was transformed by a troupe of scene shifters in matching overalls, four of whom carried large mirrors which they held towards the audience, presumably so that we could reflect upon ourselves. Note to director, Natalie Ibu, if you are going to do something like that it is best to make sure that the mirrors are vertical and not tilted upwards as all we got sight of was the ceiling of the auditorium. The stage hands were all black, which I assume to be a not so subtle reference to the allocation of menial tasks.
When the action resumed, things took a darker turn with a face-off between Charles and Charlotte who were the only two actors involved in this section.
Apart from the mirror failure I found that the presentation of the play was not very good. The set didn’t work particularly well. In the first act, although the side walls of the apartment sloped out a bit, this wasn’t enough for we who were seated on the end of the row to be able to see the unveiling of the autopsy so didn’t have a clue what it looked like. There was a helpful description by one of the characters but not great. The view was further impeded by the positioning of the BSL Interpreter, Lauren Lister, at the end of the wall in question. The other pieces of art had also not been selected very carefully as they were very small and, even though the focus of discussion, they had to be described so that we knew what they were.
The acting was good, it can’t be easy portraying characters who have no character.
I am sure that the hipsters of Greenwich Village and Tribeca will love it but I felt totally distanced, which was a shame as it had some valid points to make. This can only be done when the points of reference are familiar and most weren’t. Those which were are in danger of changing, thus undermining the tenet. For example, Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who was cut from his team after taking the knee during the National Anthem, is now working out again with the Las Vegas Raiders so may shortly lose his martyr status.
There is also the difference in the way in which black and white co-exist in each of the countries. America has had a large black population for centuries whereas the average person in the UK has only come into contact with them over the last 70 or so years, meaning that we are still in a period of adjustment and assimilation.
The main question in my mind is how is a black woman who is a poet, teaching the subject at Yale University, and lives in New Haven, Connecticut, can deduce the attitude of a slum kid from post-war East Leeds who had had no real contact with a person of colour apart from an Indian school teacher, until I went to study in London in 1969 when I was 20. Even I struggle to make out how some of my fellow citizens can hold the opinions that they do.
I have seen some powerful pieces at Leeds Playhouse on the subject of race but I am afraid that this wasn’t one of them, in fact, I had no empathy whatsoever with any of the characters. I am sure that to some that means I am guilty as charged by Ms Rankine. If only I could console myself by decanting a $1,000 bottle of pinot noir.
For more information and to make a booking please go to https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/the-white-card/ it runs until 4th June
All images supplied by Leeds Playhouse