February 12, 2010
With a title as bold as Race, I was prepared for this play to go where no performance had before. Director David Mamet described his production as “a play about lies,” including the hidden truth that “there has always been, at the very least, a little bit of hate between Blacks and whites in this country.”
Race is about three lawyers—Jack Lawson (James Spader), Henry Brown (David Alan Grier), white and Black, respectively, and their newly-minted, Ivy-league-educated Black associate, Susan (Kerry Washington), who also happens to be the only character without a last name. The three are called to defend Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas), a wealthy white man accused of raping a Black woman.
About 10 minutes into the first act, however, I’m still waiting for something controversial to happen. It soon becomes apparent that race, in Mamet’s terms, is still a purely Black and white thing, that is a game between the two male lawyers (Susan remains silent in the background), with each trying to outwit the other by pressing each other’s racial buttons. Mimicking a chess match, the scenes offer contentious, thought-provoking turns about race, gender and power, evident in the verbal abuse newbie Susan endures. The endgame—whether the accused rapist/racist Strickland will be let off the hook—is left up to chance.
The play has its share of bad moves, and 20 minutes in, I can sense a stalemate: the dress is the star of the show.
The plot and characters remain unnecessarily focused on the forensics of the red dress worn by the victim: its length, sequin count, particular shade. The evidence is debated only by Spader and Grier; Washington, a young Black lawyer who must defend the white man, disappears when deductive reasoning takes center stage.
Race has been marketed as a play about "racial misunderstandings," and perhaps true to its content, the production misunderstands race, offering sweeping claims such as “all whites have guilt” and “all Blacks have shame” in place of honest critique. The dress becomes the prop around which these racial misunderstandings are exposed.
As characters throw racialized accusations at each other ad nauseam, it becomes apparent by the second act that Mamet is less interested in how systemic racism continues to dress itself up than he is in entertaining how racial differences foster a lack of communication and arbitrary resentment on the basis of phenotypes. Those expecting some kind of critical breakdown of race that might have uplifted the play are prompted to keep watching the drama and stop thinking too hard.
In a New York Times article about racial difference in the United States, Mamet offers a freshman class on race-centered American drama and groundbreaking legislation: “the Dred Scott decision, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 14th Amendment and so on,” he says—as a way of delegitimizing the claim that America is scared to talk about racial issues. After citing various legal cases that outlawed the institution of slavery, anti-miscegenation and "so on," he adds that his new Broadway play is bound to be a critical addition to that dialogue.
I give Mamet two thumbs up for trying to turn white power on its head, but to say the production is a “critical addition” to the dialogue on race in America is a stretch. It’s largely offensive, epithet-heavy script—while a trademark of Mamet plays—seems obsessed with using exploitative slurs for women’s body parts, desensitized repetitions of the n-word and reference to immigrants as “half-literate” “illegals.” As the play closes, I feel not only that I’ve missed the moral of the story, but that the unethical parts outweigh the lessons.
By the end, sensationalism wins over bona fide suspense, and I’m left at square one, albeit with some good post-theater dinner conversation. In retrospect, the standing ovation on the part of a predominantly white audience was the only scene that really got me thinking.
Adebe DeRango-Adem is a writer who travels between Toronto and New York City. She a former research intern at the Applied Research Center who writes on issues related to race, social justice, migration and the phenomena of culture.