Theater Review: “The Race” — Business as Unusual
By David Greenham
This is a very effective political drama, a relevant warning about what social critic Chris Hedges calls the formation of “corporate totalitarianism.”
The Race by Mark Binder. Directed by Brien Lang. Original Music by Nikita Zabinski. Stage Management by Allison Marchetti. Staged by The Wilbury Theatre Group, Providence, RI. Presented virtually through February 7.
As Providence-based Wilbury Theatre Group begins its second decade, the artist collective has decided to speculate on the post-COVID future, particularly the possibility that what’s to come might be even more challenging than what we have already been through. The Race, a Zoom-generated theatrical experience, provides the audience an encounter with a dystopian society via an all-too-plausible job interview. The script takes place in a familiar-seeming present — but something is weirdly off. The feeling is similar to the mood set by the famous first line of George Orwell’s classic 1984: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
A screen tells us that the Acme Company Human Resources (“Making our world better one position at a time”) is conducting Human Resources Conclusive Interview #6. Not one but two candidates appear on screen, and that immediately strikes a strange note. On the opening night performance, Joseph Black (Jim O’Brien) and Joseph White (Rodney Eric López) each took a seat. It is not stated directly, but race is very much at the center of The Race. O’Brien, who is white, and López, who is not, are going to switch roles back and forth during the run of the production.
While they barely engage with each other, each applicant knows that the other is included on the Zoom call. Along with its exploration of racial tensions, The Race is also about competition in a world increasingly beholden to technology. The two candidates are (apparently) vying side by side for the same position and, understandably enough, they become increasingly anxious to provide the “right” answers to the interviewer’s lineup of intrusive questions. The first question, “Do you identify as American,” is typical of the grilling — off-putting and all too relevant.
The interviewer (Jennifer Mischley) takes the form of an unseen and electronically manipulated voice. If you are suspicious of the cast list, it’s plausible that the “voice” is being generated by some sort of computer algorithm. The questioner may not be human. The job candidates don’t know an audience is watching the proceedings, but the interviewer does. In fact, viewers are invited to become part of the interrogation by voting for questions through Zoom’s poll feature.
The interviewer engages both candidates with questions designed to reveal their differences: Joseph Black is a homeowner in a Massachusetts suburb; Joe White is a city-dweller who rents; Black is a citizen and White is not. It becomes increasingly clear that the interviewer knows all of this info about the men — and a lot more. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the interview is its Kafkaesque quality. Both candidates insist that they’re willing to relocate for the position. But it is evident that neither candidate knows what the job is and where the company is located. They (and we) never learn what position they are vying for.
So, if The Race is a power struggle, the hidden leader(s) of Acme Human Resources are the ones with all the power. The candidates are so desperate for a salary that they are willing to give up all their rights to privacy to work at a position they know nothing about. Black and White grow more and more uncomfortable and frustrated with the interview, but they continue to answer the questions earnestly.
And the audience, a sort of voyeuristic cabal, continues to be peppered with “yes or no” poll questions, which I suspect many viewers continued to respond to: “What’s more important: truth or results?” or “Do you believe that proactive nonviolent activism is a good plan?”
We’ve all experienced or heard stories of pre-employment screening tests that are designed to root out clues to whether a prospective employee is likely to steal or be a whistle-blower. The Race‘s job interview takes this kind of Big Brother intrusiveness to a diabolical extreme — partly because the voice can ask embarrassing questions based on what it already knows about the candidates, who are painfully aware they are going head-to-head with their rival.
Dramatist Mark Binder is known in the state for his uphill political battle against former Rhode Island Speaker of the House Gordon Fox. The thrust of the 2012 campaign pointed out Fox’s corruption, and the exposure eventually led to a guilty plea. (Fox was just released last year.) For his first play in 20 years, Binder is punching up again, but this time the impersonal (inhuman?) nature of corporate America is in his satiric sights.
And Binder is very effective; his script is thought-provoking and unsettling. Director Brien Lang is limited to the square screen of each character’s space, but he keeps this 60-minute foray into our employer-dominant present — tweaked into the bizarre — tumbling along. As the two interviewees, O’Brien and López never undercut the premise by supplying moments of “acting.” They are successful at their mission — to never let viewers take a comfortable breath. As the faceless interviewer (or devilish algorithm), Mischley’s timing is devious and unnerving. The WTG presents viewers with an unusual theatrical experience — the session is torturous but spellbinding. We are continually forced to wonder why we stay tuned. I suspect that, for many, it’s a little like watching America’s current political landscape: the chaos compels attention. But The Race also offers the audience the assurance that there is some sort of order to the insanity.
Of course, this is a very political play, a relevant warning about what social critic Chris Hedges calls the formation of “corporate totalitarianism.” The WTG provides a glimpse into what the future could hold unless citizens take the action necessary to ensure that the one percent don’t control everything. Like Orwell’s 1984, The Race is a wake-up call, demanding that we dissent against the dehumanizing directions business is taking. Of course, we may already have left Orwell’s postwar dystopia in the dust: “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.” Given the psychological manipulations of Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of social media, our minds may no longer be our own.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Associate Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He is the current chair of the Maine Arts Commission, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.