March 15 – April 10, 2022
“The heart of justice is truth telling…”
—bell hooks, All About Love
In July of 2019, playwright, essayist, and poet Claudia Rankine published a piece for the New York Times titled “I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked.”
To jump back to July 2019 for a second: Trump was still in office, and we were a little over a year and three months out from Election Day in the presidential race. That month, the 45th president was on the phone with Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine, to solicit help in trying to smear Joe Biden—a conversation that would lead to Trump’s first impeachment. We were a few weeks out from the first trial in the college admissions bribery scandal that saw over fifty almost entirely white and wealthy individuals charged with crimes for buying their children’s way into elite colleges. The US was experiencing the hottest and wettest year on record, and police killed over a hundred people in July alone, Black folks being three times more likely than white people to die from police violence that year.
As a renowned and in-demand cultural figure who travels frequently, Rankine settled on a particular space in which to pursue the conversations about privilege suggested in the title of her essay: “I found myself considering these white men who passed hours with me in airport lounges, at gates, on planes. They seemed to me to make up the largest percentage of business travelers in the liminal spaces where we waited.”
The essay, along with the expanded and annotated version that opens her 2020 book Just Us, and also the play Help, which begins performances at The Shed on March 15, are all situated primarily in that same liminal space—the always in-between of the airport. It’s a place where a person has necessarily stepped outside the familiar; it offers the opportunity to do something differently without the risk of ever returning to that exact space again. It’s perfectly suited to the iterative form that each of the three works takes: starting in her mind as an idea, then moving to her observations of her fellow travelers’ behavior, and then finally, the moments when the thought-experiment is made real. A white man, after learning that Rankine teaches at Yale, opines that his son was not admitted to that same school when he applied early. “It’s tough when you can’t play the diversity card,” he tells her.
“Were the words just slipping out before he could catch them? Was this the innocence of white privilege? Was he yanking my chain? Was he snapping the white-privilege flag in my face?” she asks in the essay, though a variation on this same scene appears in the play.
“‘The Asians are flooding the Ivy Leagues,’ he added after a moment. Perhaps the clarification was intended to make it clear that he wasn’t speaking right now about black people and their forms of affirmative action. He had remembered something. He had recalled who was sitting next to him.”
She uses his stumbling shift as an opening: “I asked. ‘I’ve been thinking about white male privilege, and I wonder if you think about yours or your son’s?’”
In both the New York Times version of the essay and the expanded and annotated version published in her book Just Us, Rankine sets up a central conflict. “I myself am overdetermined by my race,” she writes. And in these conversations, at least a part of what she’s looking for, as she explains in a different anecdote about a white man who cuts in front of her in the line for first class seating, is “to enact a new narrative that included the whiteness of the man who had stepped in front of me. I felt his whiteness should be a component of what we both understood about him.”
While I haven’t yet seen the play in its current form (after just a few performances in 2020, COVID forced the show to close early), one thing that sticks out immediately from reading a working draft of the script is the stark contrast in who appears on stage. The central figure, the Narrator, is a variation on Rankine herself, played by actor April Matthis, while the rest of the cast is made up of eleven white actors, all but two of whom are men. Just imagining the closing bow offers its own visual metaphor: one Black female actor against a sea of whiteness.
Directed by Taibi Magar, with movement choreography by Shamel Pitts, the work explodes out from the pages of the original essay and its book form. Still an iterative form, with scenes that swirl out from and circle back on those repeated moments in the airport, it feels more like a performative collage, layering on top of the white character’s attempts to meet Rankine’s request for engagement, adding in the words of others, including Trump, former senator Kelly Loeffler, and some of those who participated in the January 6 riots at the Capitol Building.
By locating her words and thoughts in actual bodies, Rankine taps into something similar to what she explored in her very first performance work, The Provenance of Beauty, produced in 2009 by the now-shuttered Foundry Theatre. I had the chance to interview her ahead of that production and one thing that came up more than once in our conversation was “the location of expectation in a single body.”
The performance consisted of a bus tour of the Bronx with a narrative that unfolds on headphones worn by each passenger/audience member and also through words spoken by a live performer. And in answering my question about what she hoped to draw people’s attention to, she had this to say:
I’m very interested in the body. And the recognition of the body as the most important thing and also the most vulnerable thing. So, even though the tour is very landmark-based and interested in the history of the landscape, I’m interested in it only in as much as it points to the lives, to the people, and the idea that communities are built out of lives. … Maybe it’s a little naïve, but I feel like if you locate yourself in your own body then you will recognize the other bodies around you.
In Help, Rankine seems to be, at least in part, revisiting a similar instinct—making a very deliberate choice to locate and challenge expectations in the body of Matthis, the single Black actor on stage, who is also the driving force and guide in the performance. The large ensemble of white actors shift roles and voices over the course of the production as a kind of Greek chorus, a glaring background that throws Matthis’s Narrator all the more into focus.
She, the Narrator, is searching; searching for a white person who can speak honestly to their privilege, who can sit publicly in their race the way people of color are forced to sit in theirs, no squirming, no jumping around, no running away. It’s never entirely clear that she can or will find what she seeks. The fact that Rankine has revisited these ideas across three forms suggests unfinished business.
I grew up as a white kid in a military family living primarily in a Virginia suburb a little over ten miles southwest of Washington, DC. I can remember as a child and teen in the 1980s and 1990s, that the most frequent public response to episodes of racial violence or conflict that I heard was the suggestion that we all just needed to sit down and have an honest conversation about race. Talk show hosts, politicians, and pundits alike would trot it out with cloying regularity.
This hypothetical “honest conversation” was a form of deflection, an avoidance strategy. It served as a way of shifting attention and accountability away from whatever issue had arisen—whether it be Rodney King being tased and brutally beaten by LAPD officers who were later acquitted of any crimes, Anita Hill confronting Clarence Thomas before the Senate, or the burning by white people of over a hundred Black churches across the South in the 1990s, among so many other incidents.
Those conversations were always located in a hypothetical future and in a hypothetical place where the everyday grind of oppressive structures would allow them the time and space to both reveal the race-based problems of our country and propose concrete solutions to those problems.
Predictably, those conversations never really happened, not in the way they were presented.
But in recent years the notion of race-focused conversation has come up in a new way. Trump’s presidency, preceded by the Black Lives Matter movement, Obama’s presidency, the ever-more publicly visible violent behavior of whites and police toward BIPOC communities, and the growing radicalization and militancy of white conservatives, has forced people’s hand in many ways.
In many corners, what that looks like is liberal and progressive white people being asked, often by members of that same group, to engage in conversation with their white friends and family about race and politics, particularly when there are differences in perspective and/or party affiliation. In other words, this time, the pressure is largely being driven at the individual level: a public call to speak privately.
But if you have tried to have those conversations, you may know that more often than not, they fail, or at least fall short of the desires with which they are entered into.
Rankine is doing something different here. White folks stumbling among themselves between civility, evasion, and tears, is not the same at all as a person of color asking an unknown white person, in a public space, one-on-one, to take ownership of their race.
In her essay “social contract,” also included in Just Us, the narrative revolves around a dinner party where Rankine was the only Black person present. At a certain point in the evening, in the context of a conversation about Trump, after Rankine speaks to the ways public policy and practice uphold racism, a white woman interrupts to focus the guests’ attention on dessert, and Rankine notes aloud the fact that she is being silenced by this woman’s attempt to divert the guests’ attention. Reflecting on the aftermath of that moment, Rankine writes, “Whiteness wants the kind of progress that reflects what it values, a reflection of itself.”
Much of “social contract” is Rankine thinking through, circling back, and expanding on that moment, her own refusal and frustration with the avoidance of the white woman. That movement, that returning, that constant seeking of answers, is so present in all three works.
There’s a sentence later in that same essay that pulled me directly back to the world of the play, to Rankine’s interest in the body, and more specifically, to location of all of these proposed and idealized dialogues in actual people: “All the perceived outrage at me, the guest who brings all of herself to dinner, all of it—her body, her history, her fears, her furious fears, her expectations—is, in the end, so personal.”
“Ain’t I a black woman?” she asks one of the white men in her original Times essay, playing on Sojourner Truth’s famous 1851 speech. The reference seems to go right past him.
And that’s just it. It is so personal. The consequences are real and felt in the body. That desire for candor and recognition is so raw and present in all of us in different ways, but perhaps never more clearly when an honest question elicits fear and defensiveness in the answerer. Why is it so hard for the white men and women of Rankine’s play to be honest? What is it that white people are so afraid of?