‘The White Card’ proves race is a complicated subject

(l-r) Charlotte (Lynette R. Freeman) Charles (Bill McCallum) Virginia (Michelle O’Neill) Eric (John Catron)
Courtesy of Penumbra Theatre

The Penumbra Theatre continues to produce plays that are thought-provoking while not shying away from controversial subjects such as race. “The White Card” is another of the theater’s attempts to make sense of complicated subjects.

Unfortunately, racism painted in broad strokes is difficult to take on. While playwright Claudia Rankine meant well, the play appeared to try to cover too much ground and stumbled a bit in the end.

The play opens with a scene in which a wealthy White family entertains a Black artist named Charlotte played rather convincingly by Lynnette R. Freeman. The interaction between Charlotte and the family struck me as quite real. I suspect it may have come from the playwright’s own experience. The dialogue and interplay had a real authenticity about it.

The upper-class White couple with a rebellious and radical offspring in times like the 1960s and ’70s was almost a cliché. While not so common as it seems nowadays, the hip and radical son Alex, though played enthusiastically by Jay Owen Elsenberg, still seemed a bit of a caricature.

Charles and Virginia are art patrons who could have been a White couple in any of a number of liberal enclaves in the U.S. They are well off and well-meaning, as is their friend Eric.

They invite Charlotte over to let her know they plan to support her and her work and are prepared to give her a quite a lucrative offer. But before doing so, they want to show just how progressive they are. In doing so, they reveal that like many Whites in U.S. society, they still have a long way to go and are sometimes part of the problem.

Bill McCallum’s Charles is a dead ringer for a clueless White man—in fact, he could have applied for poster boy. The playwright spoke to this recently in an interview with Vulture when she said, “The idea of White benevolence is based on their desire to share their good fortune, as in actual fortune. If you’re not understanding how you came to that fortune, you really feel like you’re doing other people a favor. I wanted to show that it comes from the place of wanting to help without admitting how you also contributed to the crippling of Black Americans in this country.”

Many Black people who have encounters like this will find themselves nodding their heads as in yes, we have seen this before.

Seeing Blacks as victims comes from the same tree as those who see Blacks as thugs (to paraphrase a line in the play), and this was apparently one of the messages Rankin wanted the audience to take from her production.

However, the overwhelming majority of the Penumbra audience was White. And while I think that Act I was thought-provoking, Act II seemed to convey a desire by Charlotte to get even with Charles for his insensitivity by creating art centered on White people. It came off as invasive and a bit rude. While the first act in some ways spoke for itself, the second was a bit preachy and a bit esoteric simultaneously.

The all-white set, which I assume was designed to add to the point about “Whiteness,” was absolutely gorgeous. The technical aspect of the production was flawless and so was the acting. But it appears the play got a little bogged down and maybe tried to bite off more than could be digested in two acts.

“The White Card” ended its run at Penumbra on March 8. For upcoming shows, visit penumbratheatre.org or call 651-224-3180.