It has been argued, effectively, that the person most qualified to talk about race and racism is the victim of that racism – not those who, consciously or unconsciously, are benefiting from that racism, or any system of inequality in which they have it better, more or less, than everyone else.
Clearly aware of the arguments, pro and con, playwright David Mamet – a white guy – and never one to shy away from taboos or controversy – has stepped into the conversation with his 2009 drama ‘Race,’ currently running at Left Edge Theater, at Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.
Sensitively and entertainingly directed by Carl Jordan, ‘Race’ aggressively tackles subjects of bigotry, black rage, white guilt, white privilege, cultural suspicion, and workplace sexism. Mamet’s script is a surgical, often humorous exploration of the lies so many Americans tell each other, and themselves, about matters of race.
The play first appeared eight years ago, when many were claiming that Barack Obama’s presidency had ushered in a post-racial America. Bringing things up to the moment, director Jordan opens the play with a video montage showing current race-themed political confrontations in the streets and on the airwaves, all cut to the recognizable strains of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On?’
Then the play begins.
In Mamet’s Ze-Koan-like story, Henry is a brilliant African-American lawyer, played superbly by Dorian Lockett, who is alternately funny and furious. From the opening moments, Henry is facing off against a potential new client, the cocky millionaire Charles, played by a nicely layered Chris Ginesi. Charles has been accused of raping a black woman.
He insists he’s innocent, but one law-firm has already sent him packing, so he comes to Henry, and Henry’s law partner Jack, who aren’t immediately sure they want to take the case.
Mike Pavone plays Jack as a blunt-and-befuddled, ever-moving force of nature, verbally bulldozing his way through everyone in this path – including Susan, the law firm’s cautiously watchful new hire. Played with intense focus by Jazmine Pierce. She does what she can with the role, though it frequently requires her to stand around silently and observe the men plotting their defense of Charles. Thankfully, her character does become increasingly pivotal as the plot-twists stack up.
It’s hard to say anything more without spoiling the intricately composed story.
Race is certainly an ambitious undertaking, though the script bears one or two irritating David Mamet-sized flaws, a typically under-written female part, being one. That said, Mamet’s best trick is to ask a lot of very hard questions – and then barely attempt to answer them.
He knows that to offer any actual answers about such subjects could be cloying at best and deeply offensive at worst. Instead, Mamet simply presents a number of juicy, interesting, uncomfortable things to think about, then tosses in a few last-minute surprises and sends us away wondering what-the-hell it was that just happened.
It’s no shock that Mamet, ever the master of profane conversation, peppers his play with four-letter-words, racial epithets, and effectively hammer-hard dialogue. Ultimately, Race is as much about sexism as it is about racism.
Intelligent and raw, probing and disturbing, Left Edge Theater’s bold production might offer no real answers, but the questions it asks couldn’t come at a better time, or be more important.
‘Race’ runs Friday–Sunday, through March 26 at Left Edge Theater.