Review | The White Card: guess who’s coming to dinner 2020


Lynette R. Freeman, Bill McCallum, Michelle O’Neill and John Catrn in THE WHITE CARD. Photo by Caroline Yang.

In The White Card, at Penumbra Theatre things don’t go awry in the way you might expect. Playwright Claudia Rankin dives head first into the American race relations. The play starts with Charles and his wife, Virginia (both white) who live in a swanky, art filled, Manhattan apartment. They have invited an art dealer, Eric (also white), and Charlotte Cummins, a photographer, to their home for dinner. Charles wants to buy one of Charlotte’s latest works to add to his collection but the problem is, Charlotte Cummins, a black woman, is a bit picky. She won’t sell to just anyone and the New York couple, in order to win the prized art, hope to demonstrate their best, most compassionate behavior. For example, we learn that Virginia has given their black cook the night off. With a set-up like this a lot can go wrong and much does, but while White Card is often times funny, it is not about a clueless, well-meaning white couple’s uncomfortable missteps.

            White Card‘s humor is slanted and sly. It doesn’t dissolve in a moment but leaves tracks. There are no easy answers here but a great deal to think about. Who makes art, why, and who can afford to buy it are just the beginning of the questions raised. When the couple’s college-aged son comes home he tangles with both is parents. Charles accuses his son of attending pointless street protests and his son retorts that the father’s foundation is only a bandage and does little to foment systemic change.

There are no villains in this play. And no heroes either. The superlative cast is led by Lynette R. Freeman as Charlotte and Bill McCallum as Charles rounded out by Michelle O’Neill, Jay Owen Eisenberg and John Catron. The highest honors must go to director Talvin Wilks. This dialogue-heavy play is laden with repartee so fast that one must stay focused to keep up. Wilks keeps a steady balance between humor and drama, fast pacing and pregnant silences. It all looks easy as bodies move around the stage creating subtle tableaux as the characters struggle with concepts of fairness, forgetfulness and a way forward.

Playwright Rankin has created a brilliant reversal in the second act—which I will not spoil for you. Many of the questions the play raises get turned inside out.

This is electrifying theatre created with intelligence and clarity. If you have an interest in a deeply felt discussion about the American disaster called “race relations” I suggest you see it. If you wonder what the terms micro-aggression, erasure and appropriation mean, I suggest you see it. If you value important, timely theatre, by all means, go see it.

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