Friday, November 1, 2019

Drury and Rankine: award-winning writers challenge whiteness


MaYaa Boteng portrays Keisha,
the pivotal character in Jackie Sibblies Drury's Fairview
(photo: Julienta Cervantes)


Hosted by Brooklyn's Center for Fiction and presented with Theater Communications Group, playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury and poet Claudia Rankine sat in conversation about Drury's Pulitizer-winning play, Fairview (2018), and Rankine's first published play, The White Card (March 2019). Both stories have scenes centered around a dinner party and deal with race and white surveillance, ultimately training a floodlight on what whiteness is and what it does. The writers discussed Fairview, mostly, including Rankine's experience of seeing Drury's play in the company of a white woman, a close friend and colleague, who (literally) failed to rise to its challenge. So, The White Card, which I have neither seen nor read will remain more of a mystery to me for a bit longer.

Though highly anticipated, the event proved to be frustrating, beginning with its late start (a half-hour) and a curious mismatch of speakers--both thoughtful, distinguished artists--whose personas could not have been more different. Rankine more reserved and watchful, read not from The White Card but from her essay responding to Fairview and contributed careful, finely-wrought, even mournful analysis at select moments. Drury, more accessible and endearing, too often seemed like a nervous student in awe of a visiting star scholar who is, yes, a MacArthur-certified genius. Rakine's 2014 multiple award-winning volume of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric, zoomed her into mainstream awareness as a critical witness to everyday racist microaggressions that, along with the fundamental nature and tenacity of white supremacy, make any mention of "post-racial America" an absurd lie. Would that The Center for Fiction could have magically blended these two writers into one fascinating being.

Rankine largely supported Drury in working through the creative process and the varying audience responses to Fairview, a play that first soothes and reassures white audience members with a familiar sit-com scenario and then asks them to participate in gradual, then increasingly unsettling, hard-to-escape exposure of their own white privilege. This conversation gave me a moment to revisit my own reaction to Fairview's final section where the teenager Keisha invites white people to rise from their seats and reassemble on the stage. As a Black woman, I immediately got the system-tilting shift Drury was going for in this theatrical exercise, and I must admit I felt a little smug. No, a lot smug. I also recall that the white people in the SoHo Rep audience I had sat with were all quite cooperative. From Drury's report, it seems that reaction was far from common.

As with reading Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, I'm struck, once again, by a sense of unacknowledged tragedy--what Rankine refers to as the loneliness an oppressed person feels, the sense of having been abandoned by all to injustice. On many levels, for many reasons, so many of us live with unhealed trauma. Gaslighting deepens and worsens the tenacious psychological/emotional effects of injustice. It messes with our overall health as individuals, communities and a society, and we're living in a time when gaslighting is pretty much the National Anthem.

Artists like Drury and Rankine bring heroic witness to this incendiary, potentially transitional time. The rest is up to us--to clean these uncovered wounds and allow them to heal.

Learn about The Center for Fiction and its upcoming events--such as evenings with authors like Edwidge Danticat, Annie Baker and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins--here.

The Center for Fiction
15 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn

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DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve as Senior Curatorial Director of Gibney. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.

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