Relaxing in her dressing room after a student matinee of The White Card, presented by ArtsEmerson and the American Repertory Theater and directed by Diane Paulus, Karen Pittman speaks of empathy, of walking through Times Square and feeling the energy of the stories of everyone in the crowd. “I feel like I’m deeply sensitive to those sorts of things, which sort of, I think, makes me a more interesting actor,” Pittman says. “It makes me a much more fragile person, much more vulnerable in that way.” Interesting actor is an understatement, after watching her navigate the stark white box of the play’s set as the up-and-coming artist Charlotte, who is invited to a dinner party by a wealthy white Manhattan couple. During the play—written by poet Claudia Rankine—and the moderated talkbacks after the performance, characters and audience alike are asked to flip the script and consider the role that whiteness has in America’s fraught racial history. We chatted with Pittman about everything from her recent work on the upcoming second season of Marvel’s Luke Cage series on Netflix, to what it means to talk race in Boston.
What first got you interested in the performing arts?
Like most children I had a lot of energy to spare. I have four siblings and my parents were a working family, you know, they didn’t have a ton of stuff to keep us occupied so my chosen way of keeping myself occupied was to play with my dolls and make up stories. So dramatic play was my way in, and imaginative play. … I will say that very young I created a conversation, a language with empathy which I think is inherent to being a really good actor. You cannot be a good actor without being deeply empathic.
Do you prefer working on stage or for the screen?
I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot because I’m trying to be very intentional about it. I like both a lot. I love working in theater because of the immediate response of the audience. I’m doing a TV show called Luke Cage and it comes out on June 22, but of course we finished filming it months ago so I’m waiting to get the audience response of what they think about the stories we’ve told. It takes such a long time for us to get it and I think everyone’s gonna love it. … One of my mentors was Zelda Fichandler who was the head of NYU grad acting for a long time and she sent me a letter when I first got out of grad school. I was saying, “Should I move to LA? Should I just go and do theater or go do film and TV?” And she said, “I hope you always come back to theater because it is the mountaintop. It is the mountaintop of acting.” And I just think that is absolutely true. The journey that you encounter in creating a character over a rehearsal period and in the preview period with a community of actors and collaborators like Diane Paulus and a writer like Claudia Rankine, it cannot be duplicated in TV and film. It can’t be. It’s just inherent to what doing theater is.
What drew you to The White Card?
Claudia. Diane. The story. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a character where she is not—it’s not started by talking about, “Oh it’s so hard being black. It’s this being back. It’s this about blackness.” It’s taken for granted that the audience understands what it means—in quotes—to be black. Do you know what I mean? I think in America we’ve had a lot of conversation and dialogue with that and I love that Claudia does not make the assumption that the audience needs for her to tell them what the black experience is in America. And I was interested in for the first time in doing a character who talks about whiteness to white people. That kind of filled me with a little fear, a little anxiety the first day that I walked into rehearsal here in Boston. You know Boston has a long history of segregation and racial dysfunction and all that kind of stuff. And I walked past the theater like [sharply inhales] “I’m in Boston.” [Laughs.] Boston. Which might be one of the more racially dysfunctional places in the northeast and I’m about to talk to white people about their whiteness. What in the hell did I think I was doing? And it’s not ever been a problem, but you know it’s been an interesting sort of character to bring forth. Again, I just love that Claudia has decided that she’s not going to talk to the white folks about the black experience. We’ve heard enough about that. Let’s talk about the white experience. Let’s talk about whiteness. Let’s talk about what that means. And the psychology of it and what we’re dealing with. I knew I would not be able to tell this story any other time in my life with these collaborators in this way, when the play was at its earliest developmental process. And I thought, “I want to be a part of this. I think this is gonna feed me in some way and feed my career.”
Why do you think this an especially relevant work in today’s climate?
I think that people are yearning for these stories, you know? The desire to create a dialogue in a hostile political climate is pretty intense. I think, you know, as corny as it may sound, our souls need to connect. We need to be in community with each other especially during times when it feels like we’re solitary in a lot of ways. And I don’t think people want to be, I think they feel like they have to but they’re seeking opportunities to sit own with each other in a room and confront difficult truths without being confrontational.
In a way, there’s that “oh, shit” moment as a white person in the audience. Like, white people are not used to whiteness being the focus. But then you stop and think, like “Of course it should be.”
Right, right. Claudia has a line. “Maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong direction. We were all raised wrong.” We’re all raised wrong. We’ve been looking at black people and black victims and black dead bodies but maybe we should be looking at something else in the picture. That picture is not the dead black person but the other person who’s perpetrating the crime. That’s important. Let’s talk about that.
Do you ever go to any of the talkbacks?
I go to a few of them now because I’ve been here long enough to be intentional about what my work is from show to show, regardless of what the audience is gonna get. And that’s very fascinating, just the number of people who will respond. Who are allowed to respond. Who feel comfortable responding. You know a play is always what you bring to it more than what we tell you to take from it. So it’s always interesting to hear what people bring into the storytelling and what they walk out with. …. There is a reason why certain people stay and certain people go. We did have this one show where someone walked out.
That was the performance I went to. It was two young women who left. I was going to ask you about that.
…The truth of the matter is that I think for a lot of the audience when people go, they start leaning in. They’re like, “Oh, why are they leaving? Is this an interesting part or something? Did I fall asleep for a few minutes there? Did something offensive happen and I missed it?” Do you know what I mean? That was frustrating. But again, it happens. … I think those two women who left ended up coming back to the talk back. At least that’s what the stage manager said. They ended up coming back. And that’s how I heard that the reason why they left is that the play got to them.
How do you come down emotionally from the performances?
In some cases it takes me a while. I mean, the preparation for doing the evening of shows is not as complicated as coming out of it sometimes. You really do have to have a post-show routine. And mine is sometimes drinking tea or listening to music often to completely unravel me. I’ll listen to something to calm the character down and put her to sleep, to sound really Method about it. But I may just turn on the song that I know that will speak directly to the emotional dynamic of the character. And I’ll put her to bed. But in the case of this particular play that final image puts Charlotte to bed. She’s on to her next thing within that final image. And you have a sense that Charlotte is gonna be ok. And you have a sense that Charles will be ok. And you have a sense that the story will be ok. So I don’t feel like I have to take care of myself any further than that.