The White Card by Claudia Rankine
Newcastle Northern Stage
Friday 29 April - Saturday 14 May 2022
Newcastle's Northern Stage is host to the the UK and European premiere of a modern American play. Natalie Ibu directs a play that will be the springboard for many conversations amongst the audience.
It is great to be back at Northern Stage. They have produced many memorable, and on occasions life changing, plays over the past 32 years that I've lived in the region. I had forgotten that feeling that one has as you leave a show here that really moves you. A show that leaves you processing the past 90 minutes - trying to make sense of it all. This is a gripping production that keeps you engaged to the end. Some of it is tough to watch but the overall effect is a rewarding production.
l-r Estella Daniels, Nick Blakeley, Kate Copeland, Matthew Pidgeon + CJ Coleman
The show was advertised as starting at 7.30, however as soon as the door opens the action has actually begun. The table is being prepared and some guests arrive for a meal before the official start time. As the actors interact you find yourself drawn in already.
Matthew Pidgeon as Charles and Estella Daniels as Charlotte
The set initially appears simple - with seats and a table however it strikes you that rather than reproductions of various artworks, the decision has been made just to give a written description of them. There is a QR code to the original works in the highly informative free programme. We don't normally discuss the programme but a lot of thought has gone into this one with a number of essays to provide context about the play.
Estella Daniels as Charlotte
The concept, as writer Claudia Rankine states in the programme is a simple one "an imagined conversation regarding race and racism amongst strangers" that takes place in a dinner party. The result is a thought provoking stimulus for a conversation by the audience once they get home. Whilst the setting is in the United States, the situation equally applies here in England. As director Natalie Ibu reminds us in her programme notes "if we are a country where a young Black girl is strip searched at school, - and we are."
Movement director Rachael Nanyonjo worked with an ensemble of Black women to choreograph the transition between scenes
Charles (Matthew Pidgeon) is a wealthy white property developer who collects art with a focus on the hostility towards people of colour. He wants to add the work of emerging artist Charlotte (Estella Daniels) to his collection so he arranges a dinner party. Art agent Eric (Nick Blakeley) has made the arrangements with Charlotte and also attends the evening event.
Charles played by Matthew Pidgeon and Charlotte played by Estella Daniels
The show begins with Charles and Eric watching a recording of the tennis with Virginia (Kate Copeland). Virginia only watches the matches after she knows the result as she cannot stand the tension if she thinks have favourite star, Serena Williams, is going to lose. It is also clear early in the evening that she is not entirely keen on her husband's passion for the style of artwork that fills their house.
Estella Daniels as Charlotte
Charlotte arrives and very quickly, rather than having a harmonious discussion about the art, each characters entrenched position is laid out. It is not just a matter of reading the right essays and knowing the correct terminology - racism exists because of those with white skin.
CJ Coleman as Alex
Matters become more complex when the son of Charles and Virginia arrives back from college. Alex (CJ Coleman) has been at a Trump protest - which bizarrely Charles keeps referring to as a Trump rally - and Alex is quick to state his activism within the Black Lives Matter movement. This puts other members of the party, including salesman Eric on the defensive backfoot.
Kate Copeland as Virginia
To be honest, as the tension builds I am surprised that Charlotte does not leave at a couple of points in the show - though it would have resulted in a short production!
l-r Estella Daniels, Kate Copeland, Matthew Pidgeon + Nick Blakeley
A clever part of the show is the transformation of the set from rich man's home to the artist's place. Rather than dead time, it is a choreographed movement which quite literally gives the audience a chance to reflect.
Cast of The White Card
Directed by Natalie Ibu, designed by Debbie Duru with Lighting Design by Rajiv Pattani
How one responds to such a show is going to be a personal one that is different for everyone as it depends entirely from your own perspective at the start of the show. It is a powerfully emotional piece that is still a good night out at the theatre even if, at times, it can be tough going. Themes of race, racism and violence need to be discussed and theatre is a perfect vehicle for such work.
Nick Blakeley as art dealer Eric
This is my review so I guess I need to say how it affected me as a white middle-aged bloke... I really liked it. It is a raw example of theatre that was still making me think long after I had left the theatre. The show is well acted, tightly directed and skillfully written. By not being preachy it leaves the individual audience member the space to contemplate. I know I needed time to chew it over before writing this review - not because it was bad - but because it made me shut up and want to listen.
The White Card scene transition choreography by movement director Rachael Nanyonjo and ensemble cast of Black women from across our community
Northern Stage is never afraid with its productions and this show is up there with the best of them.
Review: Stephen Oliver
Photos: Wasi Daniju
The show is going on tour after Newcastle:
18-21 May - HOME, Manchester
24 May - 4 June - Leeds Playhouse
7 - 18 June - Birmingham Rep
21 June - 16 July - Soho Theatre, London
On The Web:
Available online from https://www.northernstage.co.uk/Event/the-white-card and from the box office: 0191 230 5151