A few years ago, poet Claudia Rankine gave a reading of “Citizen: An American Lyric,’’ her 2014 award-winning collection of poems exploring racism and aggression. During the question-and-answer period, a white man stood up. “He said he had been moved by ‘Citizen” and he wanted to know what he could do for me,” Rankine recalls. “I said that I was doing very well, thank you. The real question he should have asked was ‘What can he do for himself?’ ”
The audience member didn’t like her answer. “He said, ‘If you are going to answer questions like that, nobody is going to talk to you.’ How did we get there so quickly? The conversation is over?” The soft-spoken Rankine raises her hands in the air with a quizzical look.
The interaction haunted Rankine, a MacArthur fellow who teaches at Yale University. It was in her consciousness a while later, when she attended a dinner in her honor at the home of an East Coast university president. Talk turned to race and the Black Lives Matter movement. The party went south fast. People exploded. Voices were raised, and suddenly guests were storming out. “We just don’t know how to talk about race and racism and white dominance,” Rankine says. “We don’t have the practice.”
So she set out to stage a conversation. Her play, “The White Card,” opens for previews Saturday at the Paramount Center’s Robert J. Orchard Stage and runs through April 1. The world premiere is directed by Diane Paulus and produced by the American Repertory Theater, where Paulus is artistic director.
There is a certain serendipity about how the production came to be. ArtsEmerson artistic director David Dower had asked Rankine to adapt “Citizen” for the stage, and she was already thinking about staging a conversation about race. He connected her with P. Carl, a dramaturg who was then co-artistic director of ArtsEmerson and is now a distinguished artist in residence. As the two worked together closely, Dower realized that his organization is not a producing operation, so they called in Paulus and ART, which has a history of developing new work.
The play features a dinner party not unlike the one Rankine attended. It unfolds in a swank New York apartment, where an art collector named Charles wines and dines a provocative African-American visual artist named Charlotte. He and his wife and art dealer want to acquire Charlotte’s work for his invaluable collection. But just like in real life, the gathering goes off the rails quickly, with insensitive comments, blow-ups, accusations, and misunderstandings that flow thicker than the deliciously expensive Piquepoul Blanc.
Rankine conducted multiple interviews when she was writing “Citizen,” but for “The White Card,” she just sat around her kitchen table and read it with her closest friends, many of whom are white women. “There was a sense of ‘Is this woman believable to you as a white woman? Is this man believable? Is this a space you understand?’ I would say, ‘I am acutely aware that as a black woman I don’t know fully what it is for you to be you, in the same way you don’t know fully what it is to be me.’ We bring with us a historical past.”
And she was astonished at how the world mirrored the words she had written. In the play, the characters discuss the depiction of Emmett Till, the African-American boy murdered in 1955 after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman. His mother insisted on an open casket so that people could see the brutality of lynching. Rankine wrote a discussion of Till into her play, but then last March, the issue inflamed the art world after a painting of the dead boy was exhibited in the Whitney Biennial. “It was down on paper already, and then the Biennial opened,” she says.
She also named her two protagonists Charles and Charlotte. That was before the racially motivated 2015 church massacre in Charleston, S.C., and before the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. “It has been interesting to see the play unfold as time has passed,” Rankine says.
The character of Charlotte is a strong woman committed to socially progressive art. And she is fertile ground for Karen Pittman, the actress who plays her. “She is a kindred spirit to me,” Pittman says. She recognizes the playwright in the character she is portraying. “Charlotte has the most interesting and dynamic characteristics of Claudia. She is observant, a fast thinker, a dry wit, very funny but also invested in processing what is happening around her in society. Claudia has an abundance of stories and anecdotes about her own experience with racism and her own perspective about social justice which is unique and valuable to the process.”
But how do you start a discussion onstage about racism and history when it has been so difficult to start one in real life? “How do you do that without giving people a way out?” Pittman says. “One of the things the character says that sticks with me, is that she realizes the past will never be the past. If you know, to some extent, that we are always walking around with our history, that is a good place to start.”
This is the second time Pittman has performed in a play about a dinner party that combusts when issues of race and religion arise. She played Jory, an African-American lawyer, in the Broadway production of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Disgraced.” “Isn’t it crazy?” she asks. “How is it that I am doing the same play?” She allows that the gatherings she attends are civilized. “People are typically well-behaved at the dinner parties I attend.”
But there is something in the air, something that needs to be served besides platitudes and Kumbaya, which is Rankine’s point. She isn’t promising a big “take home” for the audience. She just wants to begin a discussion, onstage and off. ArtsEmerson has launched a series of events to address the issues in the play, including “Citizen Read,” a citywide book club in which more than 1,300 residents have signed on to read Rankine’s “Citizen.” “I am hoping the play will allow us to start talking,” Rankine says. “What the talk will do . . .” She pauses. “Who knows? Until we start talking about what we believe and why we believe it, we will continue to tiptoe around each other and get nowhere. We have seen what the silence does. We should give talking a chance.”
THE WHITE CARD
By Claudia Rankine. An American Repertory Theater production presented by ArtsEmerson. At the Paramount Center, Robert J. Orchard Stage, Feb. 24-April 1. Tickets from $25, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.orgPatti Hartigan can be reached at email@example.com.