Claudia Rankine's New Play Forces White People To Question Their Privilege
“Help” runs from March 15 to April 10 at The Shed in New York City.
March 15, 2022 at 2:38 pm
Among a multitude of other circumstances, one thing most Black people find common ground on is our interactions with white people. Though situations vary, white dominance persists in the real-life lives of Black Americans and is the subject of poet and author Claudia Rankine’s latest play Help. Ahead of its debut at The Shed, the Jamaican-born writer spoke with Blavity about a multitude of topics surrounding the project.
How an important day in American history served as a source of inspiration
The narrator (played by April Matthis), a Black woman, recounts real-life discourse Rankine held with white people about their privilege in fluctuating spaces like airports. The conversations develop through various monologues and staged scenarios, with a supporting cast of nine white men and two white women acting alongside Matthis.
“The environment of the script has shifted given the last two years,” Rankine said to Blavity. “Probably the most important event that has come into the script is the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol Building. And that is, I think, incredibly structurally and tonally altering to the script overall. I know we’ve had killings of Black people all along, but there’s something about an institutional, supported, attempt to overthrow democracy also tied to the systematic killing of Black people. That together shows an alliance of the entire system’s commitment to Black death and white supremacy.”
Learning about race in and outside of the classroom
Help is not Rankine’s first project examining systemic racism and white influence. In fact, Rankine’s extensive literature catalog heavily delves into race, and her awards, honors and promotion as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2013 prove her words resonate with audiences.
The play isn’t meant to be a performance where white people suddenly feel guilt about their immunity, but instead a way they can reflect on how their inherent privilege comes at the disadvantage of Black peoples’ basic rights. Especially when it comes to covering bigotry in academia.
“Culture is incredibly powerful. Who we are is shaped by the culture, and the people who are against critical race theory also understand this,” Rankine said. “And that’s why they’re trying to shut down avenues of thought. That’s why they’re trying to prevent certain books from being read. Because they’re afraid of what it means to have a consciousness that was built through the culture. They are not going to win that war because people are exposed to all kinds of things in different ways.”
Regardless of whether opponents of critical race theory succeed in banning the topic in schools, Rankine asserts, curious scholars will look at other vehicles to learn about the country’s history as it pertains to race relations.
“If they don’t get it from reading books, they’ll get it from watching Ava Duvernay and Steve McQueen films. They’ll get it from the performances of their favorite actors. There’s no one way to do it, you know?
“Not only are they making it, they are in positions of ownership toward what gets made. We don’t have to go through white gatekeepers in order to get work produced or bought. We’re succeeding at creating our own projects. It’s a very amazing and hopeful time right now.”
Why April Matthis was the only choice for narrator
The 11 supporting characters are individuals Rankine has personally interacted with in her lifetime, but they’re also reflective of well-known figures who have made headlines for their lack of decorum when it comes to discrimination. Among some of the names Rankine mentioned to Blavity were former President Donald Trump and Amy Cooper, the white woman who accused birdwatcher Christian Cooper of “threatening” her life on May 25, 2020, in New York City.
As for Matthis, Rankine says she was the only option to play the narrator, adding “it’s more like I’m glad she said yes to the role.”
The 2016 MacArthur Fellow added, “It’s been a real gift to have someone of her superior as part of the development phase of this project. She has been crucial to the ways in which we are able to stitch together the moments, even as they’re happening.”
Help runs from March 15 to April 10. More information regarding tickets and COVID-19 protocols can be found here.