Claudia Rankine and P. Carl – Theater Matters: Activism, Imagination, Citizenship

– Welcome everyone to the Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series. Great to see everyone here. Happy new year everyone. And welcome to the Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series. My name is Christina Hamilton, the series director. And today, I want to say a special welcome to our UMS patrons, who are joining us today. We are also hosting a live stream. UMS has a live stream party going on in Detroit
that will be joining us. We’re at the top of the winter season. We have new calendars out in the lobby. Please do take one on your way out, if you didn’t get one on the way in. And plan to not miss a thing. This is presented as
part of the university’s 32nd Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium. The fierce urgency of now. Today, we are thrilled
to present poet, writer, playwright, Claudia Rankine, and dramaturge and producer P. Carl. And I want to thank our
partner in this endeavor as today’s program is
co-presented with the university musical society. And today’s conversation here also serves as the kickoff for the new UMS theater series, No Safety Net. If you haven’t heard about this yet, prepare. Amazement. This is some deep stuff
that’s gonna be happening here in Ann Arbor over
the next three weeks, looking at stage work that embraces the theatrical legacy of
examining social issues and drawing diverse voices
into a focused conversation here with all of us. This is running now
through February the third. The piece de resistance of No Safety Net are four theatrical stage programs, one which is running now, Underground Railroad game. Us and Them is the next one. I could go on singing Over the Rainbow, which will also happen
at the Stamps Gallery. And They, Themself and Schmerm, which is happening up on north campus. So through these artistic
presentation on stage, there will also be an equal helping of discussion and inquiry off stage. No Safety Net aims to
create a community platform for important dialog, an invocation to move beyond
your personal comfort zone and lean in to the complexities of living in a global society. For racism in America to terrorism and transgender identity to
radical wellness and healing, these theater pieces will confront opinions and biases with an eye toward better understanding and a greater resilience to face the world that we all live in. So don’t delay. Purchase your tickets. You can learn more about the wide arrange of engagement programs
surrounding the performances as well, and buy your tickets at Or you can go up to the
Michigan Lake box office and buy them there. And very aptly, today being opening of the winter Penny Stamps series, as we continue our theme this year of E Pluribus Unum, or “many are one,” this is the original United States motto, celebrating unity. In these deepening times of division, it is important to remember, we are all here together. Incidentally, there was a news piece with E Pluribus Unum just
a couple of weeks ago reported in the Washington Post. President Donald Trump has had a hand in redesigning the
presidential challenge coin, which is this coin that
is traditionally given to military personnel
for excellent service. The phrase E Pluribus Unum
has now been replaced by the Trump campaign slogan, Make America Great. So we’re glad to remind everyone of the real motto of the United States, E Pluribus Unum. Don’t forget Ypsilanti,
Tuesday night, the 23rd. Penny Stamp series, we
have a special presentation happening in Ypsi at the
Riverside Arts Center, with Chico Macmurtrie
discussing his large scale, robotic sculptures. So don’t miss that. We’re going to have a
Q and A in here today. There are microphones at
the end of the aisles here. So when the time comes, just line up at the mics and ask your questions. Literati is here in the
lobby with books for sale, so you can grab the titles you don’t have. Do remember to turn off your cell phones. And now for a proper introduction of our two guests today. We have with us this season’s UMS Education and Community
Engagement Research Residency Artist. She is a playwright, dramaturge, performer and thought leader. She is here developing her new play Teen Y’all, which is a
mysterious investigation of race, sex, power, policy, and economy in 18th century New Orleans. Please welcome Jillian Walker. (applause) – Theater matters. A relevant question, especially for anyone along the spectrum of
thought about activism or citizenship is, what does it mean to matter? Theater acts on matter. It is a space for something,
or a person, or idea to materialize, to come into form, to happen before our eyes in some embodied way. Our conversants tonight have
each made theater matter in the alchemical sense and in the sense that
more people think and care about humanity because of the work they make. Native Midwesterner P. Carl is a model for the field of theater. He is a dramaturge and
producer on a number of groundbreaking theater works including Melinda Lopez’s “Mala,” and Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen’s “How to Be a Rock Critic,” now playing in the public theater’s famed Under the Radar festival. Carl personally means a lot to me and so many other theater artists as the founder of the invaluable resource and virtual gathering place, Hall Around. Anybody out there know Hall Around? (audience whooping) Yay! Hall Around is a nexus of scholarship, dialog and historical archives for theater practitioners and fans. Boston is very lucky to have Carl living and working there, pushing the scope and scape
of what matters on stage. He formerly held the position
of co-artistic director at Arts Emerson and now distinguished artist in residence at Emerson College. The way P. Carl has made
theater matter to him has garnered recognition
in the form of various awards and honors, including
National Theater Conference’s Theater Person of the Year in 2015, Ford Foundation’s Art of Change Fellowship just last year, and the University of Minnesota Notable Alumni of Distinction. And through all of this, Carl writes about new
futures in the theater and for the world at large. Carl is also currently writing a memoir entitld Becoming a White Man. Certainly notable in her own right is Claudia Rankine, who, in 2014, opened a hole, a necessary rupture in
the imaginations of reader across the country, with her fifth collection of poetry, Citizen and American Lyric. To give you a sense of this work, in case you are not one of the people who made it the only book of poetry to a New York Times bestseller in the nonfiction category, Citizen brings forward an oft-ignored dimensionality of race, what I would describe as activism through haunting emotional subtlety that is also somehow loud and obvious. A collection of essays
she edited and titled The Racial Imaginary, Writers on Race and Life of Mind, was released when I was
trying to figure out how to make theater matter in grad school at Columbia, where Ms. Rankine also
received here writing MFA. The anthology, brilliant,
necessary, ranging and also exact, reminded me that every
dynamic I thought about race and my own citizenship mattered. In it, it was important but also… I wasn’t making it up. It was real. Weaving her mind and
genre-elevating tendencies into the theater, Ms. Rankine has written two plays. One of them, Providence of Beauty, a South Bronx Travelog, is performed on a bus
ride through the Bronx. She co-produces a series of video essays called The Situation and is also the founder of
the Open Letter Project, Race and the Creative Imagination. Her brilliance has, of course, brought into form many accolades including The National Book Critics’ Circle Award, the Poets and Writers
Jackson Poetry Prize, a fellowship from the National
Endowment of the Arts, and a 2016 McArthur Fellowship. The two of these incredible minds you will hear in a moment are bringing their
multifaceted imaginations and activisms together to
work on Rankine’s new play The White Card, and we have the pleasure of witnessing this conversation tonight. I believe the meteor that flashed above us a couple of days ago has already welcomed them here, but let’s all do our best right now to welcome the collective matter of P. Carl and Claudia Rankine. (applause) – Hello, good evening. We’re really glad to be here. Thank you. It’s cold here in Michigan, so thank you for coming out. So yeah, Claudia and I are gonna spend a little time talking about the project, Claudia’s new play and I think we’ll probably talk about a few light topics and
then take some questions from you all. So I was just gonna start off this evening by saying that the way the project, The White Card, came to be is, in part, I had the great pleasure
of seeing Claudia’s play The Providence of Beauty, on a bus in the Bronx, and I thought it was one of
the most beautiful things I had ever heard, and knew immediately that she
was someone I’d hoped that our paths would cross. Fortunately, they did and we had a conversation a couple of years ago now about adapting her book,
Citizen, into a play and we went about starting that process and talking about it and figuring out what parts of the book and as we were talking
about and working on it, it was pretty clear that you were ready to write the next thing and wanting to move on, so it started off as kind of an adaptation and then, it eventually turned into an entirely new play called The White Card. And I’ll just give you a
little rundown about the play so you know the play we’re talking about. It’s a play that we’re going to rehearse in a couple of weeks, and it will open in
Boston on February 28th. And the play is about a couple. They are art collectors, have a foundation. They have an art dealer
and a very activist son and they have a dinner
party for Charlotte, who is a pretty distinguished,
up and coming artist, who’s work they’re interested in buying. And what seems like your kind
of typical dinner party play, some things go awry in the play, as often happens. And for the second part of the play, is a conversation between Charles, who is the
head of the foundation, and Charlotte, the artist. It’s really an attempt
to have a conversation about race that Claudia’s
really interested in bringing to a kind of
public forum like theater. So that’s a quick rundown of the play and I guess I have to start… Claudia, maybe we can
talk a little bit about… We started with Citizen and you were ready to move on. Just what was the process
for you thinking about coming to The White Card and where did the thinking behind it? What got you moving in that
direction from Citizen? – Well, I’m going to say,
in this very breathy voice, (laughter) good evening. It’s lovely to be here. If you could see what I can see, you would see four signs that say Exit, Exit, Exit, Exit (laughter). I’m going to ignore that. It’s a real honor to be
on stage with P. Carl. There would be no White Card without him. I think the part that he forgot to say was I tracked him down. (laughter) because I really wanted to work with him from the moment I met him and understood sort of the capacity that I could take, totally selfish. So thank you for all the work you’ve done. Literally sitting behind me as I type. The beginning of the process really began because, as I toured with Citizen, I’d come to a point where the reading of Citizen at these readings was the least interesting part for me. What I really wanted to hear was what the audience had to say. It was a challenge for me to be able to move from person to person, from question to question in this incredibly rangy way. Everybody standing in the
position that they stand in, thinking from their own vulnerabilities and precarity and power, or lack thereof. And one of the things that began to happen was that when white men ask questions, they were offered hostility, when they were not hostile. And it was interesting,
one, to watch the audience either want to save me
from those questions, so sometimes the (stutters) whoever was organizing the evening, would shut the person down and I was all like, “No, no, no. “I really wanna answer.” I want a chance to engage. And sometimes the person
would shut themselves down. The example I like to give is there was a gentleman who asked me… Who said, “You know, Ms. Rankine, “I really loved Citizen,
and I would love to know “what I can do for you.” And I said to him, “Well, I’m doing okay. “Maybe better than okay right now. (chuckles) “So you might want to think about “what you can do for you “in this climate, in this country “under the circumstances
in which we live.” And he replied, “If you’re gonna
answer questions like that, “nobody’s gonna talk to you.” And I was really surprised,
I’m like, “What?” (laughter) You know, that phrase, “Wait, what?” That was one of those moments. “Wait, what?” (laughter) It was so fast. And then, I really wanted
to stay in the conversation but then, people in
the audience were like, “Don’t waste your time talking to him.” So that idea, how do
you stage a conversation around race that continues, that doesn’t get shut down
because of good manners, or is able to ride the
tide of good manners and still come back to the
questions on the table? That became the generator
for The White Card, the play that we’ve been working on in the last two years. – Yeah, and it’s been really interesting. It is a play. Your interests have been
really to explore whiteness, which is its own controversy
in some ways for people. And then, it’s been really
an interesting process, the way in which the working on the play sort of emulates the
questions in the play. There have been a lot of
things that have gone on in the process of… We’ve been a few places
and read pieces of the play and we’ve had a number of workshops and we’ve just had a lot of feedback, in various capacities around the play and one of them being that, I
thought was kinda interesting, a number of young women
of color reading the play saying they would never
stay in that dinner party. They would’ve left that dinner party and I wonder if you would
talk a little bit about staying at dinner parties. – That dynamic was an interesting one for me because it’s true. We have had readings and I have invited people to the readings to hear their feedback actually and often, I think it’s been mainly… Younger black women have said, “I wouldn’t stay there, I would leave. “I would leave that.” And then I tried to think back on every situation I’ve
been in at work or socially. We’re unto where things get said and nobody ever leaves. So maybe there’s a whole new generation of dinner parties and work environments that I have no access to, but (laughter) I don’t know who these
people are who are leaving. It’s good that they’re leaving if they, in fact, are leaving. But I haven’t ever seen anyone actually get up and walk out, because often, we have an investment which is why we’re there
in the first place. Look at us. How many of us are out in the streets? We have a president who’s calling the home countries of a
lot of Americans shitholes. And they’re okay with that. And I include myself in the we. I mean, I’m sitting here. I’m not standing outside
of Pennsylvania Avenue thinking this has got to stop. So I’m curious about this
notion of walking out. But that was one of the responses that we’ve had to think about. The other one that I
found interesting was… This one, I think is a dynamic we had where Carl kept saying to me, “Nobody would say this.” (laughter) And, you know, Carl is a lifetime in the theater. And I understand that the language gets adjusted. But it was interesting
to be in this situation where this idea that we
are living separate lives and things that I take for granted that people say all the time, you were often saying, “I don’t believe anybody
would ever say this.” – I think it’s been interesting. Trying to make a theater piece and then trying to make a theater piece that invites people into a conversation that doesn’t shut them down, and it would be… Claudia would write
something and I would say, “That’s a little harsh. “I don’t know if they would
say it quite like that.” And she’s like, “No, they
said that to me last night “at the dinner party I was in.” And I’d be like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.” So I think it’s been an interesting learning curve for me as an artist to try to figure out how do we present this play in a way that makes people want to stay in the room and have the conversation, but it’s also real and true. One of the dynamics
that has happened a lot as we’ve engaged people in it, is people behave badly around the play. Particularly, my people, white men, and in a weird way, they
come very open-minded and sort of like, “Oh, I’m
really glad to be here” and talking about the play and then it gets really personal. So we’ve kind of… For me, it’s been interesting because I feel like
maybe they would fake it during the course of
talking about the play, but they can’t hide their
sense of defensiveness about it. And there’s been a lot of feedback about how to make the
white people more likable. Nobody ever talks about Charlotte, the black character, but always how to make the
white people more likable. So that’s been an interesting challenge. – That probably is the
most interesting challenge of the play, the sense that the play erroneously is being
written for white people and that they will be the audience. Only them. And that we must take care of them. So that play cannot show the worst of them because the best of them will think that is also them and we’ll alienate them and they will stop the rest of them from coming to the play. So suddenly you have this thing that you’re trying to make and you’re trying for the
thing to be a reflection of the life you’re living and the life you’re seeing. But you also have to be careful because the life possibility of the thing that you’re making is dependent on the generosity of the subject of the play. And there’s a lot of anxiety around that. – Yeah, you and I were talking earlier about the economics. The economics of the theater is steeped in whiteness and white domination and so theaters have to care for the economics of the theater, and if you make the people
paying for it uncomfortable, what are the implications of that? So that’s been a real challenge to keep trying stay in the room and have that conversation, and also I think it’s always a challenge when you’re developing a play because plays are so collaborative. You’re always struggling
with people’s ideas and opinions and feedback. You’re trying always to listen to that because it’s very helpful and people can see
things that you can’t see when you’re kinda in the thick of it. And then, I think in this case, it’s also but not losing
the integrity of the play in taking that feedback
and so trying to really block the line of what
the play needs to do and then also, trying to find a way to do that, again, is an invitation. I think, for me, having
worked on a lot of plays over time, this has definitely been
the most challenging in that way. – And hopefully, the most– – [P] By far the most satisfying. (laughter) – By far. Of course. It’s a good problem to have. Like, how do you walk this line, a line that you walk in real life anyway, so why shouldn’t it be a line that you’re negotiating inside
the creative process? So it’s not that I… I guess I’m surprised at how
much headspace it takes up. That’s the part that surprises me, that it is constantly on the table. How uncomfortable can white people be made and the play still exists, you know? And then of course, I think am I failing, because I’m not a seasoned playwright? Is it me? The problem the text. You know, there’s all of
that that goes on inside the dynamic. You’re surrounded by
amazing theater people so you trust that. But I’m also surrounded by consciousness, white consciousness, that was built in this country. So it’s also hard for me to know if I can trust that. Can I trust that? Should that line go, because it should go or should it go because people with more money than I have, which is the whole world, (laughter) need to stay in their seats. So that’s been an interesting dynamic. Not one I confront too much when I’m writing poetry for example. – Yeah it’s interesting when you reach out to me today. I’m not going to give away
the ending of the play. But you came up with
not really a new ending. Kind of the ending we’ve
been struggling with, how the play ends. Your idea, which was brilliant, was shocking and I was like, “Oh!” I could feel my mind doing this thing. I was like, “I will the
director respond to that? “How will the audience respond to that? “How that will review?” and your mind starts to kinda churn about. And again, worrying about
the kind of reaction to it, versus the truth of it, right? I think that’s always a challenge of ours, but I think when you’re grappling with these kinds of subjects, it becomes much even more
present than other forms. It made me think about the
question that’s in the play to Charlotte. One of the questions to
Charlotte in the play is “is she an artist or an activist?” I know you get that question. Because you’re writing
as a woman of color, it’s almost like the
theater has this weird way of taking artists of color
and immediately putting their work into the world
of community engagement and the world of activism. It can’t just be art. It has to be saying something. Maybe you should talk
about that a little bit from your vantage point as
you’ve been touring Citizen and talking about this play. – I always think they
must not know activism if they think I’m an activist. I have a friend who is an activist and one day she came to
my house because there was going to be a march. And she was, I think, determined
to get me to go with her. She came unexpectedly. I let her in. And she stood there looking at me. I was sitting at the dining room table with the computer open and much paper, and I said to her, “I have a deadline.” And she said, “You know what? “I’ve gotta go.” (laughter) And she just left. It was only afterwards that I realized she had come to get me. So that’s a thing. I have questions that I spend a lot of time thinking about. And I spend a lot of time thinking about activism, not in my work, but in my life. Midterm’s elections, I’ve already decided that that would be a
time for me to go out. The state of the United States is no state at all. And now it feels a little irresponsible for me to put the deadlines before my civic responsibility. But, in terms of the play, this question of how art and activism relate to each other. I really think the questions one tries to investigate inside the work can be anything. And as an artist, you have to sort of go at it in the way that you go at it. So I think it’s dangerous
to start to tell people what they should and shouldn’t do in the realm of the imagination. I think that one of the
things about the imagination is that it can make things possible that one would never do in one’s life. For example. In thinking one’s way through something, something gets seen, because we are still
products of the world. So things are unfolding and being questioned one way or the other so I don’t worry too much
about what the work is doing if I know that I’m being
honest to the process of making it work. The question for me in the play, bigger than the question of activism, is this question of optimism. One of the criticisms, has been brought to the play a number of times, is it lacking in optimism? There’s another way to say that? (laughter) Is it pessimistic? And for me, that’s always been… That’s really the thing that one tries to stay close to because to create an ending, and this is partly why the
ending has been such trouble. To create an ending that offers possibilities that do not exist feels deeply dishonest to me as an artist. Not as an activist, as an artist. To put forward something
that I don’t believe, that I haven’t seen, that I cannot imagine. There’s so much investment
in the white imagination in optimism, because it is possible in their lives. I think that’s why… That’s why thing don’t matter. That’s why Alabama had to
be saved by the black women. Because the worst can happen and white people will be protected. And so, for the play, that question… How do you step out of the
world that you have imagined and let that world still hold the limited, precarious life that so many of us are living and white people don’t leave? Apparently is the question of the play. How do we do both of those things? So that’s been the real question. And so when I called Carl, I think it was right after Christmas. And I said, “I think I have it. “I think I have the end of the play.” I had to give this whole preamble. (laughter) I said to him, “You know, now, “just don’t think you
have to say anything. “Just think about it a little bit. (laughter) “Just here me out.” – Yeah, I think it’s like a… It’s that thing of you’re being an artist and trying to make a thing and then you’re trying to
be a person in the world simultaneously. This play really challenges that. Like I said, I’m grateful for it. It’s been weird, as we’ve been making it, because everything we’ve been… You’ve been writing about,
we’ve been working on, is happening in the culture as we’ve been making the play. There was the Emmett Till
exhibit at the Whitney. We were literally writing
about that very scenario. And there have been a number of things in the art world. The play is very much steeped in your love of the art world and this question of appropriation and who gets to tell who’s story and then, the question of trafficking and black suffering, which is something that… Can white artists, as Danny Schultz did at The Whitney, can they traffic in that and not be exploiting black lives? And so, it may just be interesting to talk a little bit about how this play is taking up some of those things that are happening in the art world and that question of how… Who gets to tell who’s story. Even as I try to be, in my role, in the play of just really like… “What is the story you mean to tell?” Not letting somebody else
appropriate that story for the possibility of
more commercial success for example. And I think that’s always a thing we’re navigating in the art world. We’ve been navigating it
in the themes of the play as well as the world keeps
mirroring the themes of the play in a strange way. – Well, what happened at
The Whitney was interesting because it happened after we wrote about it in the play. And then people called up and they said, “Oh my God, the play just happened.” and so this idea around black death spectacle, it was important to me
before the Danny Schultz painting. Partly because I had black people who said to me, “We don’t want to see “your videos that show white
people killing black people.” My husband and I had created a video which basically
is an archival video that brought all the videos online of black people
being killed by police. And I had a number of black people say, “We don’t want to see that.” And so I was thinking is it wrong to show it, when it’s happening, when
many of those people, those black people, are in a different economic situation than the Trayvon Martins
and the Michael Browns? It’s not happening on their block, and yet they’re claiming they
don’t want to see it. I am 55 this year. I know that these things happened, but I have never been
anywhere where it happened, which also speaks to the
privilege of my life. So that’s what I was thinking of when I was working on it within the play. And then the way to think about it, somehow, Emmett Till came forward in the thinking of it. And that happened at The Whitney. So Emmett Till was already in the play and then it showed up at The Whitney. And so I think these
questions are out there. They’re out there in the culture. They’re out there in the zeitgeist. And so when you’re writing
a play in realtime, it’s interesting how much
we have to accommodate and shift was has happened in real life to what is in the play, and needs to come forward
in the play and recede when real life happens. Those were questions certainly
we were thinking about. But anti-black racism to me
is at the heart of the play and it’s at the heart of American culture. So that question… That question, it seems to me, should be in everybody’s play. You know what I mean? Where all-American anti-black racism is part of the fabric of this country. We have a president who
ran on anti-black racism and got elected by many, many… Alright, many of you. I’ll just say it. (laughter) Maybe not in these actual seats, but we know the numbers. And so it’s also interesting that there are ways to create work that doesn’t acknowledge that. And I don’t see that as activism. I see that as just reflecting
the world that you’re in. Just how many people are able to make their work without
acknowledging what’s happening around them, whether or not it’s actually
in their immediate lives. – [Male Voice] Interestingly, just a little anecdote
that’s kind of strange. The two main characters in the play, Charles and Charlotte… The Charleston shootings
had happened before we started writing the play. But Charlottesville had not happened. And we had Charles and Charlotte and we were like, “Oh my God.” It’s so weird that the characters kind of represent these two inadvertently represent these two major events. But I think that thing that
you’re saying, Claudia, which I really appreciate, how could anybody not be
including that in their work? We’ve had a conversation
over making the play. Is there a timestamp on the play? Because shit just kept happening that we would go, “Well,
that could go in the play, “and we’ll put that in the play, “we’ll put that in the play.” Because America’s exploding in this way that everything was relevant to the play. But it’s interesting. I’m so distressed I think by the way in which my profession, working in American
theater all these years, has thought of that, the kind of writing that you’re doing, as a kind of socially engaged writing, and that there’s some kind of distinction between was is socially
engaged writing and what isn’t. To me, writing that isn’t socially engaged is writing that is not acknowledging patriarchy and racism. I don’t know how you can… I was having a conversation
at dinner the other night and we were talking about some plays that have been very popular and you look at them now and you go, “Oh my God.” The theater has been avoiding these conversations for so long, and now, we’re sort of… I feel like in some ways, tasking cultures and people to represent as these kinds of socially engaged artists versus non-socially engaged artists and I’m not sure what that distinction is because when you’re not socially engaged, it just means that you’re just ignorant of what’s happening in the culture. – Exactly. You know, a long time ago, I went to… I was living in Los Angeles and I went to see the Mammoth play, Race… I don’t know if you all saw that play, but in the play, it’s a law firm and there’s a black woman and she does some things in order to get the partners to look at other things. And at the end of the play, I was walking down the steps. I brought my daughter, who,
when we arrived at the theater, said to me, “I want you to
look around this theater.” And I looked around, and she said, “Do you see any other children here?” (laughter) Point taken. So at the end of the play, we’re walking down the steps and there are two white
men in front of me, and one was telling the other about how he had got out, when he was at Berkeley, he rented a room from a black woman and all she wanted from him was that he should tutor her child. And that was outrageous. Black women somehow
manipulate the situation. It was interesting to
me because I thought, “Wow, we just saw two different plays.” I deliberately stood behind him as long as I could
because I wanted to hear how the conversation would go. And he was getting more and more irritated but also really into the
story about this black woman who manipulated him like
the woman in the play manipulated these guys. And I thought, “Oh so this is what you “got out of that play?” And this is sort of on a tangent, but the other thing I was
thinking about as he was talking was is it possible to write a play where the black people, the people of color, and the white people see the same play? Like, that to me would
be a real challenge. People walk away, and
then they talk about it and it would be the same play
that we’re talking about. So that’s another thing. I think we should look into that. (laughter) – I feel like we should. One of the plays we were
talking about recently was Six Degrees of Separation. When you look at that now, you’re like “Oh my God.” You go back to art that
has won major awards, been produced and what amnesia were particularly
white people living in that we would produce these plays and not know what they were saying, or what they meant? But you and I were talking
the other day about… Even that question of like, as you’ve been touring Citizen, the way that a white person reads Citizen versus a way that a black
person reads Citizen. You’ve had every kind of response as you’ve been touring, and I wonder if you can
talk a little bit about that because I think there’s
always that question. People kept asking that
about The White Card. “Who are you writing this for?” That thing you said earlier about we’re writing this for… All these people kept saying this is for a white audience. And I was like, “Why do
people think this play…” Because there’s more white people in it, it’s for a white audience? I don’t know, just the character count. But that question of how we’re watching and from what vantage point I think is really, yeah… We should do a survey as
people walk out of the play. (laughter) – We just were at the post. We were at the movies
before y’all arrived. (laughter) And thinking about that, it never occurred to me that that play, that movie was for white people because almost everybody’s white. I wouldn’t think, “Oh I
can’t go to that movie. “That’s not for me.” I have to admit that I was flummoxed by this idea that The White
Card was for white people, when its concerns are so much about what it means to be subject to white men in this culture. Both in terms of money, power… What’s the right word? The kind of… The delicacy of white generosity. You know? Like “I will help you if
you perform in the way “that I understand.” So you can’t… This is what “me too”
has been about, right? It’s about sexual assault and it’s about all of that. But it’s also about how do women… How much you do to stay in the room? How much are you willing to lose? How many steps backward
are you willing to take if you don’t do what is asked of you? And we would all like to think that there’s certain lines that
should never be crossed and the fact that there are repercussions to our actions is also true. I mean, that’s another thing. The play… That was another question in the play. “What does Charlotte, the black woman… “What is she willing to give up “not to be in the sun?” If you align yourself with certain people, you get certain things. And if you don’t, you don’t. So at what point are you willing to give certain things up? So that also is one of the
considerations on the table. – People kept asking us
“why is Charlotte there?” “Why did she go to that
dinner in the first place?” She’s an artist who’s selling
her work to make money. Even that question, the idea that on principle, and this a philanthropist who, in the play, supports
a lot of black artists and so, the doubting of her integrity by wanting to have a
conversation about her art with white people, I thought
was a really interesting… Every artist is trying
to figure out how to make it to the next level and take the next step and why wouldn’t Charlotte be doing that like anybody else? But even those kinds of questions, I’ve never been asked those
kinds of dramaturgical questions before. If she were a white woman, of course she would go to sell her art at an art dealer’s house. Such a strange group of
questions have emerged that I’ve never seen dramaturgically as a result of the dynamics of this play which has been fascinating. Time to do questions. I think there are some microphones. Are we ready for questions? I see microphones up here. Oh, some lights are coming up. – They’re coming forward. (laughter) – Oh there are people. – No questions. There are some questions. I think a microphone’s
there, microphone there. Here we go. – Hi. That was a little nerve racking. My name is Chelsea Urselles. I am a senior at the
University of Michigan, studying Business and
International Studies. I just had a question for Ms. Rankine. If you’ve ever had anyone accuse you of or question you about being a sellout for wanting to engage with or to work with white people or the idea of whiteness. – Not to my face, no. (laughter) No. But I have had… In a sense, I’m involved right now in a conversation with a very well-known thinker who I admire deeply. He has said to me, “Why “do you care? “Don’t you understand
it gets you nowhere?” I was giving a talk and
he was in the audience, and I was saying something about something. And I could see him shaking his head. So I think there is
among black intellectuals a range of responses about engagement with whiteness. On the one hand, you
have the afro-pessimists who say “why bother?” “How many more centuries of “killing of black people, “the incarceration of black people, “the degradation of black people… “At what point will people understand that “black people are not human
to the white imagination?” And these are people like Frank Wilderson. A number of people. The work of Side Hartman for example. The afterlife of slavery is the dynamic that controls the sensibility of whiteness and we have seen it in the election. You see it with “shithole countries.” We see it everyday. The brilliance of somebody like Trump is that he finally said,
“Why mask what is real? “I can say it and I will be president.” Because it’s what people are thinking. And I even saw on the
news somebody saying, “Why are you upset that
he’s talking about, “saying shithole countries? “We know that people think that “all the time.” So, I think in that sense, I have been labeled naive a number of times, by men of… White men, black men. In terms of my desire to continue the conversation. – [Chelsea] Thank you. – Hello. I am Kyle. I’m from Bowling Green. I came from Ohio. Some other friends are
up there in the balcony. Can you guys wave at her? (laughter) Yep, that’s them. I’m actually planning on
going to graduate school for social practice in art. Activism and art is like my passion. I’d just like to know from you how I can engage with white audiences while communicating issue
that are very delicate in America, while
simultaneously not alienating as many people as possible. (laughter) – [Claudia] Well, why don’t you take that? (laughter) – Again, I think I’d make more money if I could answer that. I feel like the– – [Kyle] Excuse me. – Yeah. – [Kyle] I would very much prefer if she would answer the question. – Oh sure. – Okay, alright. I’m here to tell you that part of the answer is to listen to Carl. (laughter) Because Carl has done a
lot of work specifically in this area. For me though, personally, I am in the room with everybody all the time. So I feel like my work is for everybody all the time. Whether or not people call me naive, I still think there
really is no difference between me, you, and the next person. There are cultural differences. There are ways in which, institutionally, my possibilities are
more limited than yours, and yours are more limited to his, et cetera. But I think people are still people and I still believe that our capacity is still there, that it’s always there. I think it takes a lot of work to stay cognizant of everything that is pulling at us, that is framing our sense of things and our sense of possibilities and so… I just think that you make work that is interested in the questions, not in the answers. At least, that’s how I… I rarely get to an answer but the questions, they unravel themselves inside the work for me all the time, and it becomes more and more impossible, actually, to find the end. Not the answer, but the end, which is why we have so much trouble. It’s because you’re dealing with people. You’re dealing with people who are hopeful and petty, and angry, and defensive and loving and hateful and traumatized, defensive and caring and mean, and defensive. (laughter) So the work is in the mess of that. And to stay, I think people
who work with answers don’t like messes, you know? But it is the thing of staying in the world. When I was in college, and graduate school, I remember thinking, why do these writers that I love so much, why are they writing from way back? Why don’t they write about
what’s happening right now? Toni Morrison, I’m talking
to you wherever you are. (laughter) I mean, I love Toni Morrison. I understand now why she
writes from way back, but at the time, I was thinking that, which is why I made a
commitment to stay present, to stay in the mess of it. And to fail in the mess of it. So that sense like, I
don’t know everything, I can’t know everything, because I’m standing here
while it’s happening around me. But to be willing to fail in the mess of it. – [Kyle] Thank you. – Hi, thank you for
being here with us today. I’m thinking about the chapter in Citizen where you talk about
Serena and the hawk eye and how she had a big influence on the creation of the hawk eye. So I just wanted to
ask if you see yourself as a form of surveillance of whiteness and if you think there are
other forms of surveillance of whiteness. – Well, she wasn’t the… The technology had been developed. Serena was the catalyst because there was a lot of argument about whether or not you need to use it. And the history of things always has a lot of power. We didn’t have it before. Why do we need it now? But the technology had been developed. It was when Serena arrived on the scene that people began to think, “Oh you cannot trust white people “when they’re given a black body to judge “or a black person.” The racism is so deep, the bias is so ingrained, that they will see
things that don’t exist. And that’s what began
to happen with Serena. And because the matches were being filmed, people could see that
people were seeing things that didn’t exist and then the justification was there. So that’s how that worked. I am just surveilling my life. I’m in surveillance of my life. My life includes white people. My husband is white. My daughter is mixed race. You know, she came home. She said to me, “I’m starting a club at school.” I said, “What’s the club?” She said, “It’s on mixed race children.” So that sense of having
a real consciousness that her parents are of different races. White people cannot not be part of my life unless I made some crazy
choice I didn’t want to make. And even then, they would be part of my life because this government has over 90%… Do you realize that, in the United States, over 90% of elected officers
are held by white people? Over 70% of them are held by white men. White men are 30% of the population. They are governing the
rest of the population. I mean, just look at the
converse if you don’t believe me. Reclaim our time. Maxine Waters. So I don’t… No, I don’t feel like I’m
especially watching white people. I feel like I’m looking at my life. My life right now includes a white nationalist executive branch. And the overtness of that, the amplification of whiteness as the thing that is
governing all our lives, is something we cannot but help see, and should be, at least in my position, concerned about. We understand what DACA has done. Sometimes, I’m sitting in my classroom. I teach at Yale, and I’m sitting in the classroom and you never know when… There was a student in that class who feels the precariousness of their world inside this country. The idea that you’re walking around thinking that you could be deported or your family
members could be deported at any time, and you’re trying to make your life work inside of that, is stunning to me. So yeah. It’s not a special orientation. It is the orientation. – [Guest] Thank you. – Hi, my name is Emilia. I grew up in Ann Arbor. Thanks to both of you for being here. You’ve talked a lot about the safety of the audience, right? And I’m wondering about medium and if you can speak to how you treated or thought about writing poetry. Books tend to be a very
private experience of reading, where theater tends to become so much more of a public experience of the performance, so just sort of that relationship between private and public. – That actually has been
one of the fun things working with P. Carl because he used to say to me, “You’ve gotta take that line out “because that’s too poetic.” And then he would say, “You’ve gotta take that line out “because it’s too academic.” And then I’d be like,
“No, this one is poetic, “and that one is academic.” It’s a totally different discpline. You know, I never would’ve thought to work in playwriting. I was working on my poems, as you say, in a very private way, sitting at my desk, just
spending hours and hours figuring out should there
be an adjective or not. Truthfully. And then, the theater producer, Melanie Joseph at The Foundry Theater, which I assume you might know about, they put on a lot of plays, got in touch with me and said, “Can you write for this piece “that we want to do?” And it was the first time I thought, oh, I could move genres. And, for that, I will
always be grateful to her because working the theater is such a collaborative world and it really stretches you… It uses different muscles and it makes me think about
very different questions and working with P. Carl has
been especially gratifying because it’s not often you have someone to collaborate with who’s also thinking about the question as hard as you are, or I am, and is doing, and has
done, the reading already, so that the conversations are starting, not at the point of education, but at the point of engagement, of unraveling even more difficult ideas that need to then find language that real people would say. And so that has been the privilege of the last two years, to have a mind as fine as his in the room with me, which I don’t think is always the case. I think I’m pretty lucky to have had that. – Hi, thank you both. My name is Azaliah. I’m a graduate student here. I’m sorry to go back to a question that’s already been asked, but I’m hoping that I will ask
it a little bit differently. I felt that much of your book was putting forth a lot
of the pain and the anger and the emotional and intellectual labor that goes on in being a
black person specifically, but a person of color in general. When you say we can’t, or you can’t not engage with white people, I think that’s just a fact of our lives because that labor is already being done by waking up everyday. But also, the question is when do you start to protect yourself? When is it that your anger starts and the pain, and whatever
other emotion comes out, stops being useful and you stop being able to convey it in a
conversation to the other? And that’s especially, I
think, when you talked about performing for the white imagination. You’re obviously not doing that, so there’s also a sense of, if you don’t perform, then
you’re not gonna register even. You’re not gonna be heard even. So I think the question
is when do you stop and go back into our imagined
communities in a sense, and say, okay, I’m gonna do
the building and I’m gonna do the conversation internally. And the other question is… I think sometimes there’s some
sort of negative recognition that happens when there’s a
confrontation that is violent or painful, or racist. There’s still something that
is being recognized in us when we speak back. So i wonder if there’s
also something in us that is not always conscious, that receives some sort of recognition in that interaction, that
also allows us to go back and continue that conversation even when it’s not useful anymore. – The many parts. One thing, I think it’s
important to know that to talk about whiteness and
to talk about white people is not to talk about
individual white people. So many of the people in
my life that I am able to talk to and discuss these things with and feel very safe with, are white people, as well as black people. One of my closest friends, for example, is the activist Sarah Schulman. We don’t always… I was gonna say disagree. (laughter) We don’t always agree but I think it’s important. I want to know what she thinks. P. Carl knows. He gets texts from me at
like 5 AM in the morning. “Did you see this?” I do think that my close friends of color, we have a kind of alacrity and speed towards a certain understanding that allows for a different entry point. But it’s not the only entry point. So for me, it’s not really a question of sequestering myself with those people. You’ve lived to be 55. You found your people. Your people can come
from all kinds of places. I was just in Denver and the mayor of Denver had the police read Citizen and then they had breakfast, and they had all these
police people in the room. And it was surprising because
there was a black woman in the room who kept
insisting that black people are the real problem. And entering that room, I never would’ve thought that that’s where I would hear that. She kept saying, “I know
police violence (mumbles), “but you know black people.” And finally the mayor said to her, “You know, every community
has its problems, “but I have to tell you, “if I get pulled over, “even as mayor of Denver, “by the police, my heart starts to beat “because I know what is
possible institutionally “inside that structure.” People are complicated. People are crazy. People are people. And then, there are the bigger structures. So I think… I’m saying all this to say that I’m not… I’m interested in whiteness as a construction. But individual white people are not that construction. They benefit from it. And some of them understand
how they benefit from it. But is it good to have people that you can share your feelings with, who you feel understand? Yes. Is it good to have your people? Yes. Is it true that there’s a kind of anger that builds up? The anger that I have
around the injustices that happen locally, meaning
with another white person, or institutionally, they used to be worse for me personally, when I didn’t call them out. When I sat there and I took it, I would leave and I would find myself… In an odd way, I was angry at me. Yeah, and there is shame in that for letting it stand. I literally trained myself. And I don’t mean that lightly. Because when I first started to speak up, I used to have this heat that came up from my legs, and through my thighs, and up through my torso
and into my cheeks. All I wanted to say is, “that’s racist.” But it took… Because I also knew that
it would have consequences. And the consequences are sometimes funny. They happen like this. That person no longer jokes with you. That person doesn’t look you in the eye anymore. That person is very polite to you. (distant speech) Then other people say, “Oh, you’re very difficult” or “I didn’t expect you to be so funny” or “I didn’t expect you to be…” I’m like, where did the
expectation come from? Because one day I said, I pointed out that something was racist. You know… Now, I can live in realtime, but I trained myself to live in real time. And realtime means… What’s the sign? If you see something, say something. I kinda live like that. And it’s almost like second nature, so it goes in like, “That’s sexist “and here’s why. “Did you just say that
because you think white people “x, y, z?” I was just sitting, having lunch with a good friend of mine who is a white filmmaker and he said to me, “Oh, I met this woman. “She’s so beautiful, she has
blue eyes and blonde hair.” And I said, “Is she
beautiful because she has “blue eyes and blonde hair?” And he looked at me a second and then he says yes. “Yes, she is, that’s why.” But he’s somebody who
thinks about these things so I don’t think it’s the
end of our friendship. (laughter) But you know, it could be. Who knows. – [Azaliah] Thank you. – Are you wrapping up here? Are you? – I was just going to say we have a few more minutes, and we have one, two, three, four, five– – Can we just hear them all at once? – That’s exactly what
I was going to suggest. This is good. So if you can all go through and ask your questions of her, and then we’ll have a final response. Wonderful. – I was wondering what both of your conceptions of race in an ideal world would be, or what its roll would
be in an ideal world. Sorry for being curt, but it looks like we’re
running out of time. – I can’t be that curt, I’m sorry. I have to be a little bit more than curt. My name is Curts, by the way. You know, it seems to me there’s always a discussion about, or a
lot of discussions about inequality. But for some reason, the street voice is always left out. I get what you’re saying about five years ago… Well, five years ago, I probably would’ve been in your position but I lost my job, ended up on the street. So racially issues don’t really play that big of a role as it used to in my mind. I never noticed before, the street voice, particularly
the street woman’s voice, is nowhere in the discourse
about marginalized people. So I just want to know
what you think about that, and what your experience has been, with people from the street,
particularly the street woman. – Hi, I’m working Delmar. We read your book in our
English class last semester, and I can say it changed my life. But I have a question for both of you. I was wondering how you guys both got to or how you all got to
realtime, as you said. The experience in your
life that led you to looking at institutionalized racism, when you started fighting back and what led you to Citizen and what led you to being
where you are today. That’s my question. – Hi, Claudia. I guess I was surprised and pleased that you talked about disambiguating writer and activist. I’ve done a lot of activist
work in three states. I write, not that successfully. But I live with two really
phenomenally talented MFAs at U of M, both of whom are award winners. Having conversations about boots-on-the-ground activism with them can often be frustrating. I think there’s an urge, no matter what line of work you’re in, if you are socially engaged
to frame what you do as an activist initiative. But that’s a very different prospect for a poet or a creative writer than it is being yelled
at or harassed by police in a march or being spat on when you’re
handing out petitions. I guess I was interested in reambiguating that space. What, if any, advice would you have to writers about their particular obligations to the body politic, if they are socially engaged, if they’re interested
in that kind of work? What are the responsibilities to other human beings and not just people who buy books and go to theaters? I buy books and go to theaters. But I think… Yeah, I guess that would be my question. Thank you. – Hi, my name is Kelly Wright. I’m getting a Ph.D. in linguistics here at the University of Michigan. I work in dialect discrimination
in the housing market. I find myself thinking
about your comment about how many steps backward
are you willing to take. How much do you do to stay in the room. I’m at this point in my life where I have reached a certain
level of expertise, but I still find myself
only called upon to speak when people are treating me like a token, when I’m the only brown face in the room and I’m supposed to
speak for my entire race. And so I completely identify with what you said about
not calling them out is like taking on this
little bit of extra shame. It’s like death by 1000 cuts. So now, I’m like how do you balance protecting your career with
not letting these things stand? When the people who perpetuate
these things against you are the people who are
in charge of your career are the ones who you have
to continue to maintain positive relationships with, to go forward, to be able to
stand in your truth later, I’m just wanting you to
speak to that, tokenization. – Okay, so that’s a range. (laughter) – [Christina] We’ve got
five minutes to answer all these questions. – Five minutes to answer
all those questions. I will just say this. And this is to everyone’s
questions in a way. One has to stand where one stands. My concern is to understand my own limitations. That’s part of my concern. To know that I don’t have her experience. I never have had it. But I understand the
precarity of blackness in this world. And poor people in this world. I also know that being an artist is different from being an activist. It’s very different. But I think that we’re all necessary to the process. It’s like choosing between Baldwin and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and saying you need one of them. You can’t have one of them. And Langston Hughes. And Zora Neale Hurston and Maxine Waters. You need all of them. Part of the individualization is that we find what it is we are willing
to risk everything for. For some of us, that’s on the page. And for some of us,
that’s in the classroom. For some of us, it’s in the street. But together, I think, and this might be naive, but I think it is the impossibility of tracking all of us in the same lane that has given us possibility. That’s where the possibility comes from. Goodnight, you all. (applause)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *