At the beginning of Karma Mayet’s Race Card (at JACK through December 16), the playwright and performer announces that if you are white, she does not need to hear your reactions to her show unless she specifically asks you for them. (In light of this request, it’s fair to mention that I am a Jewish white lady, reviewing with the artist’s permission.) This is the kind of opening gesture that makes audiences sit up and listen, and its unfussy directness is representative of the totality of Race Card, which extends an invitation to reflect on racism in everyday American life.
Mayet’s title is not just a figure of speech: She wants you to play cards with her. Race Card takes the form of a series of hands of “bid whist” — a strategic game with deep roots in black culture — doled out by way of musical chairs. Seated at a table center-stage, mic by her side, Mayet sets out to tell a succession of stories about the experience of being black in America; she employs a form of chance to determine which stack of index cards — color-coded “hearts,” “diamonds,” “spades,” and “clubs” — she will draw from to tell the next autobiographical tale. Spectators retrieve the playing cards taped to our seats and, four at a time, announce their suit and value; if the high card is hearts, Mayet then relates a memory from her “hearts” pile. (The thematic links between suits and the corresponding anecdotes are oblique, but we get the more important point — that Mayet’s lived experience contains a vast encyclopedia of encounters with racism, of which we are hearing just a small selection.) Between tales, she amps up the music — frequently playing “white jams!” like Madonna’s “Holiday” — and spectators “shuffle the deck,” so to speak, by moving to new seats to claim fresh cards.
The stories contained on these stacks of index cards are the reason to be here. They’re incidents of everyday racism: micro and macro aggressions, willfully oblivious acts of cultural appropriation, often committed by people who’d like to think of themselves as racially aware. There’s the one about the white female singer who lacked any training in blues music, yet cheerfully advertised a workshop in which she’d teach others to authentically sing the blues. Then there was the time Mayet extolled the brilliance of hip-hop lyrics in an MFA poetry class, only to be accused of “playing a race card.” Reaching further back, she recalls a neighbor kid’s dad in the seemingly tolerant Chicago suburbs, who locked eyes with her childhood self and told the young Mayet: “You’re not innocent.” (This last story echoes Robin Bernstein’s recent New York Times editorial describing how deeply racist American conceptions of childhood innocence are.) Mayet relates her stories with conversational candor, resisting the impulse to overexplain. She calls on the audience to offer memories, and several spectators volunteer anecdotes that are just as excruciating as hers. (One attendee at my showing recalled being drawn into confrontation by a group of white, beer-swilling strangers while he was simply trying to have a quiet drink with his theater company.) The narratives land because they are so devastatingly ordinary. Black audience members will all have memories like these. White audience members won’t.
The invitation to share memories is the most successful of Mayet’s forays into audience participation, others of which come across as less carefully considered. Onlookers sometimes struggle to follow the rules of her adapted whist game, as when Mayet enjoins us to get up and dance to some house music: Instead of following her own instructions, she meanders offstage, leaving us to awkwardly contemplate the beats. (A packed house would have helped with this, and with Mayet’s interactive tendencies as a whole.) Race Card’s structure could be tightened, and its audience communications clarified, without sacrificing its deliberate informality. This would only highlight Mayet’s stories — which don’t need trump suits and aces to demonstrate how unfairly America’s deck is stacked.