In the middle of a hot-and-heavy dinner party discussion about race, trauma and art in "The White Card," the host blithely interjects to ask his guests, "Champagne?"
It's like offering tiramisu at a funeral viewing, a juxtaposition of gravitas and conviviality that highlights the gaps between how well-heeled art collectors Charles (Bill McCallum) and Virginia Spencer (Michelle O'Neill) see themselves, and how they really are.
Jaw-dropping blind spots around privilege and race evince themselves throughout Claudia Rankine's heady but visceral 90-minute one-act, which made its regional premiere Thursday at St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre. The action takes place on designer Chelsea Warren's bright, white set that envelops much of the audience, making viewers party to the action.
Set at a dinner party for up-and-coming artist Charlotte (Lynnette R. Freeman), Rankine's on-the-zeitgeist play shows how the webs of history bind all in a system of commerce that places valuations on bodies as much as art.
In other words, "White Card" is a profound, and profoundly unsettling, work.
Director Talvin Wilks has found ways to humanize characters who scream big statements. His actors deliver credible, deeply felt performances. This is especially true of O'Neill, an actor of wit and light, and McCallum, whose patriarch is oblivious and self-assured.
Jay Owen Eisenberg, who plays the Spencers' son, Alex, is all righteous fury. And John Catron is silk-smooth as art dealer Eric.
Whether speaking or silent, Charlotte, the only black character onstage, is the center of the play.
As played by Freeman, she is potently symbolic.
The production has two tableaus, both re-enactments of traumatic episodes from history, Charlotte's specialty. The first, and more effective, involves a black body offered up as art and sacrifice. The second, juxtaposing historic images of captivity and fascism, is more arty than palpable.
Freeman shocks her guests and moves in these tableaus. Her Charlotte, more probing than overburdened, helps characters to see things in themselves, and offers viewers a chance to catch their own light.