Art showcases racism, trauma

Penumbra Theatre’s “The White Card” offers timely insights on the role of race in the creative realm.

Kelly Holm, Senior Reporter

Jamaican-American writer Claudia Rankine has a lengthy resume of accomplishments in the poetry and theatrical realms, from the experimental blend of mediums in “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” to the National Book Award finalist “Citizen: An American Lyric” to the play “The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue.”

In 2017, Rankine launched the Racial Imaginary Institute, which she described as “a moving collaboration with other collectives, spaces, artists, and organizations towards art exhibitions, readings, dialogues, lectures, performances and screenings that engage the subject of race.”

This conceptual framework is exactly the spirit behind her stageplay “The White Card,” published last year by the local Graywolf Press and performed at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre from Feb. 4 through Mar. 8. At a time when conversations about appropriation in art are once again a hot topic, there couldn’t be a more fitting selection for this year’s Black History Month.

Wealthy, white art collectors Charles and Virginia Spencer (played by Bill MacCallum and Michelle O’Neill) are intrigued by work relating to racial injustice but are unprepared to deal with their complicity in it when African-American artist Charlotte Cummings (played by Lynette R. Freeman) comes to call for dinner.

The Spencers are not the sort of people one would find marching with tiki torches at an alt-right rally. Rather, they are New York liberals who put a picture of their activist son’s arrest at a Black Lives Matter protest on the back of their Christmas card. They are quick to shower equitable sentiment with praise, yet patriarch Charles largely made his fortune off of private prisons.

Perhaps no phrase sums up the Spencers’ colorblindness as well as “separating the artist from the art.” While an understanding of the relationship between creation and creator is essential for any art historian or critic and is especially relevant in today’s age of #MeToo and cancel culture, these characters could not care less about who is telling what story. They view Cummings as just another addition to their “stable of artists” and are unable (or unwilling) to distinguish her work on anti-black violence from that of a white artist’s romanticizing the carnage of 18-year-old Michael Brown’s killing.

The dinner party ends in chaos as microaggression after microaggression piles up. This plotline remains perhaps a bit too unresolved in favor of a one-year-later reckoning between Cummings and Charles Spencer. This is understandable as Charles is the character who wields the most sociopolititcal influence, making such a meeting necessary. However, one can’t help but wonder whether Virginia or their son Alex (played by Jay Owen Eisenberg), who wears his activism like a suit, would face any repercussions or character growth.

“The White Card” closes on March 8. For students, tickets are $15.