In the moments before Claudia Rankine’s “The White Card’’ begins, we hear the thwack of a tennis ball being struck. Then, in the opening scene, we see video footage of Serena and Venus Williams playing each other in last year’s Australian Open.
What unfolds over the next 90 minutes is a tennis match of sorts, in which ideas, assumptions, interpretations, misunderstandings, and accusations are volleyed back and forth — and one side is hopelessly overmatched.
As an inquiry into structural racism and an interrogation of whiteness — or, as the play’s sole black character puts it, “the ordinary complicity of white people’’ — “The White Card’’ is a bracing experience that leaves you with plenty to think about. As a work of drama, this world premiere is a decidedly mixed bag that sometimes registers as more symposium than play. Especially during its first half, “The White Card’’ is hobbled by stilted dialogue that comes across as a fusillade of talking points rather than a conversation among fully imagined characters.
Yet for all its flaws, there’s a gathering force to “The White Card,’’ which finds ways to get under your skin (and to think hard about that skin) and is likely to stay with you. The most potent charge is delivered by a pair of wordless tableaux — the first midway through the play, the second in a final-scene stunner that captures much of our agonized racial history and our current dilemma in a single jolting image.
Imagery — its force, meaning, and appropriation, especially when what’s being represented is the suffering and death of black people — is a central preoccupation of “The White Card,’’ which is directed by Diane Paulus on a virtually all-white set that was designed by Riccardo Hernandez.
Presented by ArtsEmerson at a reconfigured Robert J. Orchard Stage within the Paramount Center, the American Repertory Theater production of “The White Card’’ is the second Paulus-helmed show to open on Washington Street in the past week. Her “Waitress’’ is playing next door to the Paramount at the Boston Opera House. (Disclosure: Paulus directed my son Matt’s opera, “Crossing.’’)
In “The White Card,’’ an African-American photographer named Charlotte (Karen Pittman, in what is by far the play’s most compelling and persuasive performance) arrives at the New York home of a wealthy philanthropic couple, Charles (Daniel Gerroll) and Virginia (Patricia Kalember). Acting as interlocutor is art dealer Eric (Jim Poulos). A late arrival is Alex (Colton Ryan), Charles and Virginia’s son, a passionate activist who is involved with Black Lives Matter protests.
Charlotte’s specialty is using photography to create artwork that, she says, “bring(s) into focus events that are immediately forgotten.’’ Charles and Virginia want to talk to Charlotte about purchasing her new artwork, which involves a staging of the aftermath of the 2015 Charleston, S.C., church shooting, when white supremacist Dylann Roof gunned down nine African-Americans in a Bible study group. Charlotte’s goal, she tells them, is to explore “how art can provoke connection and recognition by reenacting moments of violence that are lost to history entirely.’’
But the exchanges between the earnest, oh-so-well-meaning white liberals and the black artist grow increasingly fraught as Charlotte challenges her hosts with reminders of some of the other insidious forms white supremacy can take. (The play’s subtitle could be “What We Talk About When We Talk About Art.’’) As in her justly celebrated “Citizen: An American Lyric,’’ Rankine’s ear is attuned in “The White Card’’ to the telling verbal slip that may reveal moral obtuseness and white complacency; Virginia refers to “Freddie’’ Garner at one point, conflating Eric Garner with Freddie Gray; at another, she refers to Ta-Nehisi Coates as “Ta-ta,’’ even though a copy of Coates’s “Between the World and Me’’ is ostentatiously displayed on her coffee table. Tensions escalate further when Charlotte learns about one of the projects undertaken by the real estate and construction company that Charles own.
Supplying the grim context for “The White Card’’ are the deaths of black citizens such as Garner, Gray, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Sandra Bland, along with video images of President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and last year’s rally by white nationalists and supremacists in Charlottesville, Va. Rankine was updating “The White Card’’ until almost the last minute, to judge by the reference to the murders of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and the video of Fox News host Laura Ingraham delivering her infamous “Shut up and dribble’’ tirade against NBA superstars LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
A problem throughout “The White Card’’ is the thinness of Rankine’s characterizations of Charles, Virginia, and Eric. For most of the play, they come across as clueless one percenters, which might let white audiences off the hook, allowing them to think: “Well, those upper-class twits are not me.’’
Finding refuge in that kind of distance would be a mistake, because Rankine has important things to say, and sometimes says them trenchantly, as when Charlotte tells Charles that “You don’t think of yourself as having a race, of being shaped by your race,’’ or when the artist dryly observes: “Whiteness is propped up at every turn. It’s its own legacy program.’’
But Charlotte seems eventually to conclude that words are not enough, because by the end of “The White Card’’ she has begun to point her camera at new subjects, gathering images that examine racism from an angle that often goes unexamined — and telling a story that needs to be told.
THE WHITE CARD
Play by Claudia Rankine. Dramaturgy by P. Carl. Directed by Diane Paulus. Production by American Repertory Theater. Presented by ArtsEmerson at Robert J. Orchard Stage, Paramount Center, Boston, through April 1. Tickets from $25. 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org