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Brilliant at the Walker: poet Claudia Rankine; ‘Amazing Grace’ at the Uptown

ALSO: Joshua Redman Quartet at Hopkins Center for the Arts; chef Kwame Onwuachi at Club Book; and more.

Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine: “What do white people need from people of color so they feel OK staying in difficult conversations?”
Courtesy of Blue Flower Arts

At the Walker on Wednesday, Claudia Rankine made us listen, feel, think, cringe and laugh out loud. For a cultural force, MacArthur genius, award-winning poet many times over, author of the powerful “Citizen: An American Lyric” and poetry professor at Yale, Rankine is funnier than we expected. She has a big, generous, knowing laugh.

Rankine was here to give what was billed as her Mack Lecture, but it wasn’t a lecture in the usual sense, as “Citizen” isn’t a poetry book in the usual sense. She opened by reading the preface to her new book, “The White Card,” her first published play, which came out from Graywolf last month. Next, actors Stephen Yoakam and Joy Dolo took the stage and read the play’s second act. Then Rankine returned to the podium and announced that the Q&A part of the evening had begun.

No lecture, just straight into what Rankine seems most interested in these days: conversation. Specifically, conversation about race. How can we learn to talk about it honestly, respectfully, without getting defensive and angry and leaving the room? “What do white people need from people of color so they feel OK staying in difficult conversations?” she asked at the Walker. And earlier this year, during “On Being With Krista Tippett”: “How can I say this so we can stay in this car together, and yet explore the things that I want to explore with you?” Rankine has also said that every conversation about race doesn’t have to be about racism. But we do have to talk, and we need to keep talking – about race, white privilege, colorism and the terrorism of white supremacy.

“The White Card” is a conversation among well-meaning people that ends badly. A young black female artist, two wealthy white art collectors, their activist 20-year-old son and a white art dealer have gathered in the collectors’ New York City loft for a dinner party. The collectors specialize in art depicting violence done to blacks – to “prevent the forgetting,” the man explains, and “keep our history in the forefront.” To the artist, they’re collecting black suffering and death.

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Much of what the collectors say and assume is tone-deaf and, especially if you’re white, embarrassing to hear. Asked how the play has been received, Rankine replied that some critics said the white people were stereotyped and didn’t get any of the good lines. She noted that much of the dialogue came from talking to black artists, who told her things that had been said to them. She said, “At what point will white people see these not as stereotypical moments, but as things white people actually say?”

When an audience member asked if “The White Card” would come to Minneapolis, Rankine let a cat out of the bag. The play will be part of Penumbra’s next season, to be announced next week. Talvin Wilks will direct. He was in the house and confirmed that Penumbra will produce “The White Card” in early 2020. This will be the second time a work by Rankine has been staged at a Twin Cities theater. In 2017, Frank Theatre brought an adaptation of “Citizen” to Intermedia Arts.

Rankine gave us a glimpse into “Just Us,” her next book on Graywolf, due out in September 2020. “I hired a shrink specifically for this book,” she said. “The format is, I have a conversation, then write it down, then read it to the shrink. I want to know – what are my blind spots? What am I not seeing? Because the person I spoke with is another person.”

Understanding the dynamics that lead to an awkward or offensive situation is important to her. She gave an example from a time she was at an airport, about to board a flight. “I was standing in the first-class line when two white men walked in front of me. I said, ‘Excuse me, I’m in this line.’ One man turned to the other and said, ‘You never know who they will let in.’” It was an awful thing to say. But Rankine knew it wasn’t really about her. “He was embarrassed before the other man,” she said. “It was about him, not about me.” She mentally stepped out of the scenario and took what she calls “a 3-D look” at what had happened.

“The best thing about me is I think a lot of things are funny,” she went on to say. She knew that her presence in that line had challenged the men’s elitism, and she wasn’t sorry. “The reason I found it amusing was I understood the dynamic. A lot of times, it’s not about you. You’re just caught in it. If you call it out, you can put it back where it belongs.”

The Mack Lectures continue next Wednesday, April 17, when philosopher and critic Mark Kingwell talks about “Boredom and the Interface.” Wednesday, April 24, will feature British artist Ed Atkins, whose “Happy Birthday!” video is part of the Walker’s new exhibition “The Body Electric.” So far, this series has been brilliant: Claudia Rankine this week, New York Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi the week before. FMI and tickets ($25/20).

The picks

Because of the weather, check before you go to see if what you’re going to is still going on.

A scene from “Amazing Grace.”
40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks
A scene from “Amazing Grace.”
Tonight (Friday, April 12) at the Uptown Theatre: “Amazing Grace.” The best-selling album of Aretha Franklin’s career, “Amazing Grace” was recorded over two nights in January 1972 at a Baptist Church in Watts. It became the best-selling gospel album in history. Few people know the performances were filmed by Warner Bros. and director Sydney Pollack. Because of a technical error, the footage and sound could not be synchronized and the film was shelved. Finally fixed, and having passed a few more roadblocks, this ecstatic, joy-filled film is having its first release 47 years later. Here’s the trailer. Wow. FMI and tickets.

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Saturday at the Hopkins Center for the Arts: Joshua Redman Quartet. Heads up, Joshua Redman fans: He just released “Come What May,” his first recording in almost two decades with his original quartet, so he’s touring behind that. Everyone else: Redman is one of the finest saxophonists playing today, charismatic and electrifying. It’s exciting to be in the same room with him. The quartet’s other members are Aaron Goldberg (piano), Reuben Rogers (bass) and Gregory Hutchinson (drums). Here’s a taste. Social hour at 7 p.m., concert at 8. FMI and tickets ($12-42).

Ieva Jokubaviciute and Ariana Kim
Courtesy CMSM
Ieva Jokubaviciute and Ariana Kim will perform the Minnesota premiere of Lasse Thoresen’s “Invocation of Pristine.”
Sunday at Hamline’s Sundin Music Hall: Chamber Music Society of Minnesota: Ieva Jokubaviciute and Ariana Kim. This should be sublime. Lithuanian pianist Jokubaviciute and violinist Kim will play a concert featuring the Minnesota premiere of Lasse Thoresen’s “Invocation of Pristine” (for piano solo); Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Sonata for Violin and Piano; Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 91; and selections from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” With Young-Nam Kim (violin), Sally Chisholm (viola) and Anthony Ross (cello). 4 p.m. FMI and tickets ($25 adults, $20 seniors; students free).

Monday at North Regional Library: Club Book: Kwame Onwuachi. As a “Top Chef” contestant, Onwuachi made the Final Four on the 2016 season. On Tuesday, Food & Wine named him one of the Best New Chefs of 2019. An ambassador for and expert on Afro-Caribbean fusion cuisine, he’s written a reportedly dishy book about his personal successes and failures and being a black chef in America. 6:30 p.m. Free. FMI. Can’t go? Download the podcast a few days later.

Monday at the Southern Theater: Good Night. Something new at the Southern: a monthly Monday-night showcase of new ideas, works in progress and previews. You might see anything from dance to theater, music, spoken word, comedy and more. For its April 15 inaugural show, Good Night will feature performances by Ballet Co. Laboratory, comedian Corey Adams and the urban and street dancers of MixTape. Each performance will last up to 20 minutes. Stay for the post-show gathering to learn more about the artists and upcoming shows, buy merch and tickets, or just mingle. 7:30 p.m. Pay-what-you-can at the door. FMI. Future Good Nights are scheduled for these Mondays: May 13, June 10, July 22, Aug. 19.


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