“You cannot live thirty years with something in your closet, which you know is there, and pretend it is not there without something terrible happening to you. If I know that any one of you has murdered your brother or your mother, and the corpse is in this room under the table, and I know it and you know it, and you know I know it, and we cannot talk about it, it takes no time at all before we cannot talk about anything… before absolute silence descends.” – James Baldwin, Debate with Malcolm X, September 5, 1963
Through the course of creating The White Card, the fault line between black and white lives has never seemed sharper. As we worked on the play, its themes and story lines played out in real time. The character Charlotte was Charlotte before the march of white supremacists through Charlottesville, Virginia with their tiki torches. A discussion of the photograph of Emmett Till in an open casket published in Jet magazine in 1955 was in the play before the Whitney Biennial in March of 2017 displayed a painting of the body of Emmett Till in a casket by the white artist Dana Schutz. Black artists protested white appropriation of what they termed “black death spectacle,” and this sparked a national conversation about the representation of black death. The frame of the play, put in place in 2016, uses white philanthropy as a mechanism to think about how race and structural racism get talked about. These questions about the role of white philanthropy in addressing racism were already in place before Agnes Gund sold a Lichtenstein painting for $150 million to combat black incarceration. It seemed each week there was another event that would reflect what was on the page, which sometimes found its way into the script. As the lines between the play and the world continued to blur, we came to understand that current events had always been our history.
The explosion in America of discussions about which bodies get to be allowed access to a “liveable” life, as theorist Judith Butler discusses in her book Frames of War: When is Life Grievable, has filled our newsfeed. Black men shot in their cars, Muslims banned from traveling to the US, immigrants pulled from their workplaces and their families to be deported, transgender people specifically targeted to be denied military service and healthcare, and the #MeToo movement—women finally telling the gruesome stories of abuse and discrimination to demand “time’s up.” The play exists to consider a way forward. It looks at what feels like a fault line so wide that we will never be able to find each other on the other side. And yet, we are in each other’s way every day without knowing what to say. As we sit in the theater in such close proximity to one another, as we embrace the discomfort of the words and histories we fear to speak, we hope the play sparks the kind of risky, vulnerable, and nuanced conversation that the urgency of our situation demands.
“You and I are out in the world, and it’s as if there’s a fault line that runs the entirety of our lives between us. On your terms, there’s no way for me to get to you on the other side.”
– The White Card