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Claudia Rankine's 'Help' brings the topic of white privilege to the stage
Hari Sreenivasan: The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the cultural landscape in many ways, including postponing the premieres of many theatrical presentations.
One is acclaimed author Claudia Rankine's new play, entitled "Help," a personal examination of white privilege through abstract staging and choreography.
After a prolonged COVID shutdown, "Help" opens this week in New York City. NewsHour Weekend's Zachary Green sat down with Rankine in 2020, and again recently, to discuss the play and how events over the last two years have affected her and her work.
Narrator: You've joined us in our liminal space, a space neither here nor there, a space full of imaginative possibilities, a space we move through on our way to other places. And I want to tell you how I came to have brief conversations with white men.
Zachary Green: In March of 2020, poet and author Claudia Rankine's play, "Help", was about to open at The Shed performance center in New York City. It's based on a New York Times piece about conversations she had while traveling.
Narrator: He said he loved airplanes.
White Man 8: No phones. No news. Can't stand the news, I mean, it's non-stop these days.
Narrator: You shouldn't have voted for him. (TO AUDIENCE) I didn't give it a thought.
Zachary Green: Rankine says that she got the idea for the piece after the 2016 election, in which 62% of white male voters helped sweep Donald Trump into the White House. She believed that many of them were driven to vote for Trump because of racial resentment. She says that resentment is also the reason why many white conservatives favor slashing social spending.
White Man 13: You never know who they're letting into first-class these days.
Claudia Rankine: There is a perception--among white people--that people of color are taking things from them, taking spaces in universities. Taking their tax dollars. When in fact, many of the programs that began in this country began to help white people. And it wasn't until after the 1960s and Civil Rights buildup, the conception changed, and the notion was that, oh now, Black people are taking those things. So we will vote against our-- our own-- best interest.
Zachary Green: "Help" dramatizes Rankine's experiences as a Black woman interacting with white men, as well as their ubiquity in positions of power in the U.S.
Narrator: That's the majority of the Senate, the majority of the Supreme Court. That's just a boardroom. It's just a police force. It's the Founding Fathers. It's an insurance company. It's a line of surgeons. A line of historians. A line of bankers…
Claudia Rankine: I think what white people don't think about is the fact that I can, I as Claudia Rankine, a Black woman, could work as hard as you do, but the minute somebody knows that I'm Black, they'll put aside my resume. They'll decide that I don't fit into the culture of the company that is peopled by white people. Their structure has a door open for you, so that you can step through it and work hard. That same structure has to think twice about whether or not I should be let into that room. When I'm talking about privilege, I'm talking about that door.
Zachary Green: Our conversation with Rankine took place just before her play's first preview. Four days later, the pandemic shut down New York's theaters. Two years to the day since our first interview with her, we sat down with Rankine again to discuss The Shed's re-mounting of her play and how the events of the last two years have changed it.
Zachary Green: We saw a number of high-profile deaths of Black people: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, among others. What has it been like for you to bear witness to all of these deaths and the-- the response afterwards.
Claudia Rankine: I want to start by saying all of that had been happening, but it hadn't been happening with us sitting in front of the television in our homes where we got to see it day-in and day-out and follow the news incredibly closely. And the accumulation was devastating.
Zachary Green: In the latest version of "Help", Rankine includes the January 6th insurrection, dramatizing it with video of the events of that day and relating it to her themes of privileges, rights, and who has power.
Claudia Rankine: January 6th became the thing that had to be incorporated into the script and-- and that was a moment that I didn't feel like I could write. And so we've worked a lot on the staging of it and pulling the actual footage because I, I, I-- I think it's so important as a historical moment that I don't want to get it wrong. I don't want the audience to be able to say that's not how, that's not what they said. That's not what they meant.
Zachary Green: How do all of those events to you kind of-- kind of relate to what the play is really examining?
Claudia Rankine: Well, white privilege, inasmuch as it's tied to American democracy because if people were privileged but-- and were not also in control of the government and also in control of my possibilities as an American citizen, i.e. my voting rights, my-- all of that, then it wouldn't matter so much. Then we would just talk about class differences. But because white dominance is tied to institutional power, it's really important for us to mark these things because the ramifications will shift our possibilities, my possibility and your possibility. And you might not see it, but I will feel it first. I think you will feel it eventually, but I will feel it first.