Judicial Review # 9: Pushing Hot Buttons — David Mamet’s “Race” @ New Rep
What is a Judicial Review? It is a fresh approach to creating a conversational, critical space about the arts and culture. This is our ninth session, a discussion about the New Repertory Theatre’s production of David Mamet’s play Race, which revolves around the frenzy and fury generated by three attorneys who are asked to defend a wealthy man accused of raping an African-American woman.
Race by David Mamet. Directed by Robert Walsh. Presented by New Repertory Theatre in the Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through November 4.
Race opened on Broadway in 2009. For Mamet, “most contemporary debate on race is nothing but sanctimony — efforts at exploitation and efforts at restitution seeking, equally, to enlarge and prolong dissent and rancor.” In this comedy, he attempts to offer an alternative to this history of exploiting racial prejudice.
The set-up is simple enough. A very wealthy white man asks a trio of lawyers to defend him against the charge of raping a black woman. Two of the lawyers are black, the other white: the evidence against the man, along with his protestations of innocence yet quest for expiation, sets off a heated dialogue that includes an examination of the relativity of American justice, the embattled relationship between men and women and black and whites, and the omnipresence of shame in contemporary society.
In his chapter condemning “Politically Correct” in his 2010 book Theatre, Mamet argues that “drama is about lies. Drama is about repression. As that which is repressed is liberated — at the conclusion of the play — the power of repression is vanquished and the hero (the audience’s surrogate) is made more whole. Drama is about finding previously unsuspected meaning in chaos, about discovering the truth that has previously by lies, and about our persistence in accepting lies.” The question for this Judicial Review is whether, measured by his own standards, Mamet has discovered truth in this play — or simply added more lies.
So far, this Judicial Review features as judges Rahsaan D. Hall, Deputy Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, retired social worker (and theater lover) Karen Bluestone, and critic/dramatist Peter Adrian-Cohen. There will be more voices to come. Feel free to join the conversation!
At this point, the panelists are very positive about the play, both the script and the production. Rahsaan Hall writes that he was initially skeptical about the play, but concludes that Race “is different in that it’s not attempting to tell my story but rather our story. The story of how most Americans understand the way race influences our perspectives and understanding of certain events in life.” Adrian-Cohen finds Mamet to be a “master-builder” and believes that the reward of seeing the play is that “it robs you of whatever illusions you might still cling to that racism is not about YOU; it’s something OTHER PEOPLE do and are.”
Rahsaan Hall had some misgivings about “the play’s oversimplified attempt to present the complexities of the African American perspective on race relations, I sensed the intent behind the effort. These issues are never black and white.” And Karen Bluestone observes that “Mamet tries his best to sabotage [his characters] through his cynicism about the human spirit.”
— Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse
Rahsaan D. Hall
The Verdict on Race
“What say you ladies and gentlemen of the jury? Is the defendant Race guilty of challenging the audience to confront their own understanding of the complexities of racial dynamics in this country?” Before I answer that question, I must qualify that I am highly skeptical of any production that attempts to tell the story of people of color, particularly black people. But Race is different in that it’s not attempting to tell my story but rather our story. The story of how most Americans understand the way race influences our perspectives and understanding of certain events in life. David Mamet’s play invites us to explore the dynamics of racial assumptions when an African American lawyer has to defend a white man accused of raping an African American woman.
Right out of the gate, we are confronted with naked racial assumptions that frame the dire situation the potential client is faced with. The cast speeds through a dialogue that highlights the racially charged minefield they need to navigate to answer the core question of whether they will represent this potential client. In doing so, the two attorneys, one white and one African American, and their African American receptionist discover things about themselves and each other that touch those secret places many of us may be reluctant to discuss in mixed company but secretly believe or wonder about.
Holding aside some leaps in legal procedure and ethical obligations, the creation of the attorney client interaction played into the slick, conniving, blind ambition stereotypes frequently associated with lawyers that I find troubling. That being said, the “good cop – bad cop,” “black cop – white cop,” tag team effort to uncover the truth from this potential client uncovered some truths about the almost exclusively white audience. For instance, there were lines delivered that spoke deep truths about racial stereotypes, white privilege, and this notion of an unjustified hyper vigilance to issues of race, which evoked what I felt was nervous laughter. My sense was that those lines were intended to be provocative or insightful, as opposed to punch lines.
The context of the potential client’s dilemma seemed to have been taken out of the headlines as Tawana Brawley, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Duke Lacrosse team, and even Trayvon Martin came to mind. But what is different is that we have the opportunity to be a fly on the wall during the deliberations that lead up to how the racial spin will be played out. Despite my own misgivings about the plays oversimplified attempt to present the complexities of the African American perspective on race relations, I sensed the intent behind the effort. These issues are never black and white. Given the standing ovation, which I interpreted as a collective sigh of relief that some deeply held beliefs, stereotypes, and assumptions have a place within the complexities of this nation’s racial narrative, I believe the jury found the defendant Guilty.
Rahsaan Hall is the Deputy Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice where he handles race and national origin discrimination complaints. His primary focus areas are voting rights and police misconduct. He also serves as the chair of the board of directors for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, which is charged with funding legal services agencies in the Commonwealth. Prior to joining the Lawyers’ Committee Rahsaan served as an Assistant District Attorney for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office where he handled drug, gang, and homicide cases. Rahsaan is also an ordained reverend in the African Methodist Episcopal church and is actively engaged with civil rights and social justice initiatives.
This evening of theater is hard work for the audience; but it’s also richly rewarding. It asks you, the audience, for 90 minutes of total concentration. Because if you start to drift, even for a moment, you are likely to miss a laugh, a well turned phrase, or a sudden twist of plot of which there are too many to recount.
As its title says, this play is about Race. Or is it? On the surface, it is about a wealthy, white bully, who has raped a black woman. Or has he? Or is it the other way around? Is she out to blackmail him for a share of his wealth?
Sound familiar? Remember Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (and a Frenchman to boot), who allegedly raped a chambermaid in New York. He maintained that, irrespective of their differences in social standing and race, the sex was consensual and that he paid for it. But the press wouldn’t go for that and shamed him. Alas, without any appreciable effect. As recently as a few days ago, the New York Times quoted Strauss-Kahn saying that he may have overdone the sex thing but “lust is no sin.”
Art imitating life? Actually, with this play it’s the other way around—life imitates art. David Mamet wrote Race two years BEFORE the Strauss-Kahn incident. As his list of successes proves, he has an extraordinary sense for what deserves scrutiny in our distracted time.
So this play is not about race after all; it’s about rape. Accordingly the dialogue turns to questions about the nature of law and justice. The play is set in a law office in a city that could be New York; the alleged rapist walks in and asks to be represented; he doesn’t ask, being the bully he is, he DEMANDS representation.
Mirroring the themes of the play, the law office the bully has walked into is run by two partners—one white, one black. In these two lawyers, the bully has met his match. The black lawyer has studied not just at law school but—so we infer from his language—in the school of Mean Streets. Similarly, the white lawyer has dealt with pretty much the worst human nature is known for; in addition to his law-degree, he holds a doctorate in incurable cynicism.
Trying to get to know their new client, the two lawyers discover him to be “lying to himself, his lawyers and ultimately to God Himself.” But fortunately for the alleged rapist, that does not make any difference. His lawyers are no more interested in the truth than he is; they too want to win the case. The law, they point out, has absolutely nothing to do with justice. And even less with reality. It’s about one thing only: the telling of entertaining stories.
As the plot keeps twisting, there is a new source of surprises: A young, black woman. She is a lawyer in this same law-office. In ways not entirely clear, she manipulates the case behind everyone’s back and fabricates HER version of what happened, bringing to the case her own conflicted experience with race, sex, and justice. Above all she brings a smoldering, barely controlled fury. Things, momentarily, get so out of hand that her employer, the white lawyer, is afraid that any minute now she is going sue him for race discrimination.
The audience gradually discovers that there is a distorted, insane logic to all this. Race, sex, and power are equal opportunity employers. ALL the characters in the play have been damaged by them. And while the audience may not walk away with anything they did not already know or, at least suspect, they experience race in a very real and, if you permit, entertaining way: not as easily definable things but as behaviors deeply ingrained in us all. In the end THAT is the reward of seeing this play: It robs you of whatever illusions you might still cling to that racism is not about YOU; it’s something OTHER PEOPLE do and are.
Race clearly is the work of a master-builder. And a masterful dialogue writer to boot. No energy is wasted. Each attack is followed by a repartee, each gesture by a countergesture. So much so that, at times, the four characters blur into one and, in their place, you see an evening-filling argument. But not to worry. The cast makes sure this doesn’t happen often—they are brilliant. Ken Cheeseman, as the white lawyer has the gift of speaking with the entire body: In moments of vulnerability his legs twist, his knees jerk. Cliff Odle, as the black lawyer, is just as strong a presence; his face becomes an intimidating mirror of everyone’s fears and, by turns, a hilarious mirror of their small triumphs. Miranda Craigwell, the young lawyer, starts out quietly—as her role requires—but gradually gives free rein to her fury. Patrick Shea, finally, plays the rapist and bully with such intensity that he makes you forget that this is “just” a play. Whenever I see acting this good, I feel the presence of a gifted director. Robert Walsh trusts the playwright and he obviously trusts his four actors. The result is convincing.
Race isn’t for sissies, but it is richly rewarding.
Peter Adrian-Cohen Playwright, entrepreneur, and journalist, Cohen holds degrees from Princeton and Harvard. It was at Harvard, at age 31, that he had his break-through with the non-fiction novel The Gospel According to the Harvard Business School; the book became a bestseller with the New York Times filling an entire page with excerpts. In May of 2009, a new play, To Pay the Price, received a full production Off Broadway.
Some of Cohen’s plays have been produced by prominent European theaters such as Schauspielhaus Zurich (in cooperation with Swiss National Radio); Kulturfabrik Kampnagel, Hamburg; Hackesches Hof Theater, Berlin; Theaterhaus Gessnerallee, Zurich and Theater Freiburg, Freiburg i.B., Germany. Among Cohen’s recent works are Only a Complete Disaster Can Save Us Now—the latter about the economy, a subject familiar to Cohen from his days at the Harvard Business School.
The playwright David Mamet makes a living out of being provocative, in and out of the theater, and expects, no demands, his audience to work very hard. One can argue that any attempt at stimulating a discussion about race in this country is better than no attempt. Engaging whites in this discussion means confronting shame, guilt and fear of one’s true character being exposed. Mamet’s play, Race, does just that, challenging one’s moral compass, creating conflict among the closest of friends, and leaving one unnerved.
The story is simple. A wealthy, white man is accused of raping a black woman and seeks legal representation from a law firm that will get him off and possibly absolve his soul. It plays as a who done it. And one can easily get caught up in the forensics of the storyline; did he/didn’t he, did she/didn’t she? But, in reality, it doesn’t really matter. It reminds me of the OJ verdict. You knew he was guilty but for some there was a perverse gratification in knowing that for once capitalism helped free a black man rather than incarcerate him. You see, truth doesn’t matter because everyone lies in one way or another.
Like all of Mamet’s productions, the characters drive the plot. Jack (Ken Cheeseman), the white attorney who always needs to be the smartest person in the room, Henry (Cliff Odle), the black attorney who seeks fame and fortune while knowing he is playing in an arena that is wrought with mine fields, Susan (Miranda Craigwell), the black law intern who by circumstance of her race, gender and powerless position at the firm, seeks to level the playing field, and, Charles (Patrick Shea), the alleged rapist who doesn’t know if he wants to play the victim or seek redemption.
Under the astute and thoughtful direction of Robert Walsh, with a set design by Janie E. Howland and lighting by Scott Pinkney that is as effectively subtle as the language is harsh, the actors rely entirely on Mamet’s words which they deliver with commitment and reverence to the poetry of his work. The ensemble cast play off each other well, a concerto in motion, and tries to bring some modicum of humanity to the characters that Mamet tries his best to sabotage through his cynicism about the human spirit.
Mamet never can be accused of knowing how to write women characters. The word misogynist gets bandied around when trying to figure out what makes Mamet tick. So it is no wonder that Ms. Craigwell has the more difficult task of breathing life into Susan. But she succeeds in maintaining Susan’s stoicism until the climax, when the underlying rage in the play explodes. I felt she was kind of a heroine, my husband was leaning toward a sociopath. There lies the rub. It also appears to be a little more than a coincidence that the other two women (invisible on stage but nonetheless pivotal) were the alleged victim of the rape who the lawyers plot to vilify and the hotel maid who, because she gives damning testimony, must be half-literate and illegal and must be “murdered” on the stand.
Mamet is actually quite clever. He uses his status and power of a revered playwright to deliver half truths, innuendo, archaic notions and uninformed generalizations, all seen through the lens of a wealthy, educated, white man. And yet, he denies his validity and culpability in the first scene with Henry and Charles. Henry: “Do you know what you can say? To a black man. On the Subject of race? Charles: Nothing.” Mamet then reminds us again later in the play just in case we missed his ironic calculation with Jack’s statement to Susan, “I know. There is nothing. A white person. Can say to a black person. About race. Which is not both incorrect and offensive.” It was probably a good decision by Spike Lee to pass on Mamet’s screenplay for Malcolm X.
I do believe that part of Mamet’s motivation in writing Race was to contribute to the dialogue about race and its natural partners of sex, power, and the legal system. In order for the New Rep to gain the rights to produce Mamet’s play, they had to agree not to have a talkback. Mamet apparently wanted the impact of his play not to be emotionally truncated by a structured discussion between the actors and their audience. He definitely succeeded as this play has stuck with me, forcing me to revisit my thinking, my feelings, and my fear that we will never be free of our racist roots.
The same week I saw Race, I attended a movie premiere of Cracking the Code: The System of Racial Inequity at the Strand Theater written and directed by Shakti Butler. The film discusses the internal (such as bias) and the external (such as institutional racism) forces that have lead to and continue to fuel racial inequity in our country. The audience was diverse, 18 to 80, equal parts black, white, cultural diversity, and advocates of anti-racism, both the war horses and the energetic youth. Ms. Butler interrupted her film on a couple of occasions in order to give the audience time to turn to their neighbor and talk about their experience, to have a talk about race. Two approaches, both with their own merit.
I applaud New Rep for producing this play and by so doing contradict Jack’s contention that “all people are stupid.” I also appreciate New Rep’s commitment to expanding the theater experience by cosponsoring with WGBH a panel of black scholars and playwrights to discuss with each other and with a New Rep audience their reaction to Mamet’s play. It is a theater experience that keeps giving.
Karen Bluestone is a retired social worker whose career focused on working with adolescents and their families. A theater lover, she recently took part in New Rep’s Page to Stage program for those interested in learning what it takes to develop a written script into a professional theatrical production.
Director Robert Walsh
Race is David Mamet’s closest approximation to Shakespeare I’ve yet seen. It is commonly held that Shakespeare’s characters say what they mean -different, possibly, from Chekhov who holds a premiere position for creating whole worlds of subtext. What would happen if we took them at their word? (Think Rashomon). Similar to Shakespeare, Race contains numerous aberrations, inconsistencies of time and, generally, inconclusive linear clues that might help us form a verdict. I’m fascinated by an overwhelming need to satisfy those urges over coping with one’s own culpability. The playwright really set out with one purpose which, I would offer, is being fully realized in this stream.