Celebrated poet and public intellectual Claudia Rankine did not intend to write "The White Card," her unflinching exploration of white supremacy and privilege in a liberal art world family.

The catalyst for the play, which opens Thursday at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, was a well-meaning but loaded question the MacArthur Foundation "genius" was asked a couple of years ago after reading from her critically acclaimed multigenre collection, "Citizen: An American Lyric."

A white man stood up and asked, "What can I do for you?" turning the traumatic bigotry she had written so lucidly about into a personal problem that he may be able to solve. Rankine turned the question back on him, asking, "What can you do for you?"

"[James] Baldwin said white people tried to civilize black people before civilizing themselves," said Rankine, a Yale University professor whose works are published by Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press. "When somebody who has just told you that they love your work and felt impelled to leave their house to come hear you talk, then turns and asks, 'What can I do for you?' you see that this idea of a white savior remains in his psyche."

The question "presumes not just superiority but innocence," Rankine said. "I think, on a certain level, he had a desire to make something better. We are who we are, despite our best intentions."

Rankine dealt with the incident the way she processes many of her experiences — by turning them into art. "The White Card" uses the format of a dinner party to vent issues that have been raised only fitfully in a nation that has not yet reconciled with its history.

Wealthy white Manhattan art collectors Charles and Virginia Spencer host the shindig in honor of rising black artist Charlotte. The Spencers' undergraduate son, Alex, and their art dealer, Eric, also are present. After good food and bon mots, things get real.

Rankine sees the play as an opportunity for stand-ins for herself and her questioner to try again.

"The dinner conversation as a form allows people to be in the same reality," she said. "One of the things that's striking to me is I could have gone to the same college with someone, spent an amazing amount of time with them in grad school, yet my knowledge of American history is very different from theirs. When we try to speak to each other, we are working from different ideas. What if we are in agreement about the facts?"

Critical race thinker

Rankine is taking critical race theory, the area of study that examines how racial categories are constructed and maintained as part of societal power structures, out into the world. In addition to writings, readings and plays, she collaborates with other artists, including her husband, filmmaker John Lucas, who is white, on documentaries on the subject. And she has used some of the $625,000 of her 2016 MacArthur award to fund the Racial Imaginary Institute, a roving think tank.

"Claudia's vision is transformative as she deals with cultural issues that have been with us since the country's inception," said Graywolf Executive Editor Jeff Shotts. "The crisis we're in with nationalism, tribalism and white supremacy didn't start with the 2016 election. Sometimes the volcano is dormant. But Claudia's work helps us to see the whole picture with clarity."

That clarity includes surfacing things that we carry as a nation in our subconscious and seem to be far removed from a rarefied, pristine realm such as the art world. Slavery, a dominant feature of American society for centuries, arises in "White Card" in conversations about commerce, black bodies and Christianity.

"The idea of Christian sacrifice and capitalism go hand in hand," Rankine said. She pointed out that slavery gave way to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. "The structure is inhumane and barbaric, but it remains the structure we're in."

Silent witnessing

The audience sat on both sides of the action at the 2018 premiere of "The White Card" in Boston. That setup is not possible at Penumbra, which has a shallow thrust stage.

"But what we've done is to remove some rows of seats," said director Talvin Wilks, known for his palpable, intelligent shows. Wilks has been wrestling with how to make some of the archetypal characters human. "You want to avoid stereotypes or too many ideas, which lead to audience shutdown."

"White Card" has one black character onstage surrounded by four white ones. That's not something one expects from a theater that Lou Bellamy and August Wilson built, said Jay Eisenberg, who plays Alex.

"For Penumbra, this is a little insane," Eisenberg said. "But you can't talk about blackness, a construct, without talking about whiteness."

The play is especially important for Minnesotans to see because while the state is progressive and forward-looking, it has some of the largest racial equity gaps in the country, according to a Star Tribune analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

The first transgender actor to play the role of Alex, Eisenberg is bringing a different element to the young, "woke" firebrand who sees himself as the ultimate ally of black causes.

"At Penumbra, we believe that the body matters, and I wanted to bring my whole self to the process," Eisenberg said. "For any white activist, especially one on the margins, you might feel that you can understand. But being able to show up in a realm is not the same as having unpacked privilege and power."

Playwright Rankine flies to the Twin Cities this week to see her show at Penumbra and will again hold talkbacks. Who knows what questions she may be asked?

Last year, Rankine wrote an essay for the New York Times Magazine called, "I wanted to know what white men thought about their privilege. So I asked."

That essay, which drew scads of comments, is included in "Just Us: An American Conversation," Rankine's newest book that will be published by Graywolf in September. It also sparked another Rankine work, "Help," which premieres March 10 in New York directed by Taibi Magar, who staged the production of "Noura" that's up at the Guthrie.

The show continues conversations from "The White Card."

"One of the things I learned is that these white men were upset that I think they have privilege," Rankine said. "Their idea of privilege was economic — having a job at Goldman Sachs and driving a Maserati. And they're like, 'You're a professor at Yale who flies around in first class.' But my understanding of privilege has to do with being able to walk out the door without surveillance or fear, with being able to just live."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390