Photo by Timothy Moder.
David Mamet’s Race announces its audacious intentions in its audacious title. This is a play, he seems to say, that deals with the subject directly, head-on, honestly. When you see it in Next Act Theatre’s fine production—and you should see it—that will surely be the question on your mind: Just how "honest" is this story?
For while the title announces the play’s frankness, it also seems to announce it’s universality. Here is a story about what we talk about when we talk about race. Not how four characters in an invented narrative talk about race, but how we all think about race, even if we don’t admit it (to others and even to ourselves). For it’s clear that the four characters in Race are meant to stand in for America—they exist to voice and articulate the “issues.” And just how well they represent you and your ideas and prejudices—well, that’s what you’ll be talking about.
The story is simple—and not so simple. Charles Strickland (Jonathan Smoots) is wealthy man who has been having an affair with a much younger black woman. She has accused him of rape. He insists it was consensual. It becomes a high-profile case, and Strickland has already tried and abandoned one law firm and has now shown up at the offices of Jack Lawson (David Cecsarini) and Henry Brown (Lee Palmer), where the elements of the case are laid out quite clearly by the lawyers. “Law is an alley fight,” snaps Lawson in one of his many confident proclamations. “Neither side wants the truth—it wants to prevail.” And so the issue at hand has little to do with what happened, and everything to do with perceptions, prejudices (conscious and unconscious), and even the almost anthropological emotions that surround and affect feelings about race—guilt, shame and the hunger for power.
This isn’t a character-driven play, though director Edward Morgan and his actors do a great job of firmly establishing the roles each character plays. Lawson is the cynical hot shot, an arm-chair sociologist who knows exactly how the game is played. Brown is the weathered pro, who speaks from his experience as a black man but has no illusions about the wide divisions between the races. Susan (Tiffany Renee Johnson) is the young black lawyer who observes the partners closely but wants to make her mark. And Strickland (Jonathan Smoots) is sheltered, confused and naïve—a man previously protected by his wealth who has been thrown into the lions den of journalists, public opinion and gossip.
Rather than characters, this is a play of incidents. One by one, elements of the case become clear, and each twist leads to a new round of proclamations, speculation and debate about the way the events will be perceived by a jury (Mamet’s experience as a screenwriter is prominently on display—the play’s 80 minutes are chock full of twists and turns).
Yet this is not a courtroom drama. Mamet’s insightful conceit is to expose the back room conversations, the strategies planned or deployed that supposedly get beneath the posturing and false consciousness that characterize conversations about race in America. Supposedly. Thank’s to Morgan’s fine direction and the immersive performances of his actors, it all spins by in a whirr of energy and apparent logic that makes a persuasive case: This is how the world works.
Whether you believe it or not, well that’s something to talk about—preferably with a group of folks who aren’t all the same color.