by James Foritano
BOSTON, MA–Claudia Rankine’s The White Card, playing through April 1 at the Emerson Paramount Center on the Robert J. Orchard Stage, is about both the privileges of whiteness in a multi-racial society and the enervating struggles of a family in conflict and confrontation.
Either one of these themes is huge enough to be handled alone, but both at once, however deftly explored, seemed, to this reviewer to overwhelm rather than enlighten.
“Charles,” Daniel Gerroll’s character, is a prosperous developer of everything between and including the polar opposites of hospitals and private prisons, trying to live down the conflict between the nurturing and punishing aspects of these institutions by establishing a foundation which aspires to collect and forefront black art and artists.
“Charlotte,” played by Karen Pittman, is a black artist invited for dinner whose “black” art, absorbed into Charles’ foundation, is mainly being purposed not to develop her vision but to exonerate Charles from the excruciating tensions of his two opposed ambitions: doing “well” and doing “good.”
“Virginia,” played by Patricia Kalember, is the society hostess who is hostage to the impossibly opposed ambitions of her husband, Charles, developer and aspiring saint. Impossibly tasked with an impossible husband, it’s no wonder that Virginia forgets to serve dinner.
But wait! There’s a son, “Alex,” played by Colton Ryan, who seems to live for creating anxiety in both his parents by throwing himself on the barricades of the racial divide, not in a metaphorical and self-serving manner like father Charles, but really and dangerously out on the streets.
Given this noxious stew of family dynamics, Charlotte is less a guest and more just one more lump of fodder in a meal that will never be served but to injure. Resented by her “hostess” Virginia for representing not an artist in her own right, but the false way out for a husband who wants to have his life both ways at once: cherished by Charles, only if she and her art “behave” in a way that will exonerate his mixed ambitions, it’s no wonder that Charlotte jumps out of the stew and flees back to her studio. Wouldn’t you?
After a quick change of scene, Charles appears in Charlotte’s studio, stung, but still uncomprehending, by her desertion of both the meal and the deal, and somehow, as quickly as the scene has been changed, summons the strength to lay himself bare to a critique he avoided all during dinner, not to mention his vexed life.
Well-staged in a completely white box that encompasses the audience (and their whiteness); well played by actors who play their parts with understanding and passion, “The White Card” seems, nevertheless, to tangle with too many issues to forge a thesis.
It does throw up the vital question, though, in a wrestling of dialogue and action, as to what cast of characters, form of drama is fit for so huge a question. And, as the play itself questions, if that form were to be found, would America have the “moral imagination” to see itself in this ideal shape? Perhaps “The White Card” itself, encouraged by audience feedback will assume that best, if not ideal, shape — a shape that we ourselves, in the theater and in our lives, will entertain deeply and hopefully.
(The American Repertory Theater’s presentation of Claudia Rankine’s “The White Card” continues through April 1 at the Robert J. Orchard Stage at the Emerson Paramount Center, 559 Washington St., Boston. For more information, call (617) 824-8400 or visit http://www.artsemerson.org.)