by Lisa Traiger
There are no shades of gray in David Mamet’s provocative legal drama Race, which deals with guilt and innocence, truth and fabrication, in black and white. For Mamet, race is everything in a case concerning a wealthy white man accused of rape by a black hotel housekeeper. That Mamet’s 2009 drama predates the sordid, real-life headline grabber, when the former International Monetary Fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of the same crime and then slipped out of the country, is nearly beside the point. In Theater J’s deftly realized production, on stage at the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center’s Goldman Theater through March 17, race is the lens through which every moment, every action, every statement is viewed. It’s a daring construct, and in a rousing 90 minutes of snappish dialogue and biting barbs takes the audience on a wild ride.
To write compellingly about race in this so-called post-racial era – when a black man occupies the White House, on the one hand, but, on the other, one in 15 African American men are incarcerated, compared with one in 106 white men according to the nonpartisan Center for American Progress – is a challenge of the highest order. That one-time liberal Mamet has taken up the mantel of truth teller on the nearly off-limits topic of racial politics is, in itself, intriguing. The former darling of the left-wing theater and Hollywood crowds, anointed for his earlier works, which seemed to take down the establishment or the status quo, Mamet has taken an about-face in recent years, realigning himself on the right. These days whether he’s talking about Israel or education or taxes, he’s solidly ensconced in the conservative camp.
In Race, two law partners sling barbs back and forth before their would-be defendant Charles Strickland, none too worried about his guilt or innocence, but highly concerned about the benefit and pitfalls of taking his case. Mamet unleashes his usual R-rated epithets and insults, made more powerful by the force of his preference for staccato dialogue and over-talking that transform the conversations into tightly wound realism, fed by the dynamism and tension-filled patter of the characters.
Director John Vreeke sets up the sparring nicely on designer Misha Kachman’s chrome-leather-and-wood law office, overlaid at the start with Jared Mezzocchi’s collage of historic photographic projections. Sometimes lawyers Jack and Henry face off, other times they circle each other in a boxing ring. That they’re on the same side in the long run makes the verbal dueling more intriguing as they pepper both their prospective client and their neophyte assistant with questions and demands. The kicker for Mamet is that one lawyer, Jack (James Whalen) is white, the other, Henry (Michael Anthony Williams), is black, as is new-hire Susan (Crashonda Edwards).
In Mamet’s setup, race matters, really above guilt or innocence. When Brown confronts Charles early on he’s perfectly blunt: “There’s nothing that a white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive. Nothing.” And there you have it. The crux of Mamet’s play in a nutshell.
Yet, by the end, race, racial stereotyping and prejudice take a back seat to the question of veracity. Somebody – or everybody – must be lying, otherwise this predicament couldn’t stand. Mamet leaves questions of racial politics and truth in a tangled mess. He has, Race suggests, his opinions, but wants to let the audience work through the knotty dialectics of what race means and how it affects us in early 21st-century America.
Theater J has tackled Mamet, the late-20th- and 21st-century playwright poet of the downtrodden – those schemers, committers of misdemeanors, the half-forgotten and the oft-ignored. He ignites their dialogue with language so fiery it might even make Rahm Emmanuel blush. (Well, maybe not.) In Glengarry Glen Ross – coincidentally playing at Round House in Bethesda – Mamet did the same with salesman, but to more stunning effect. His Speed-the-Plow – seen at Theater J six seasons back – took on Hollywood deal makers.
No matter where Mamet sets his characters down, they do best in the verbal boxing matches he contrives. Unfortunately Mamet consistently gives his female characters short shrift.
He does the same here in Race with Susan, who at first is a cipher, but ultimately insinuates herself becoming the instigator for much of the conflict in the 90-minute work’s climax.
It’s difficult, though, to like what Mamet does for and with his female characters. He just can’t do them justice – they end up being called schemers, connivers, liars, would-be prostitutes or worse. To say the playwright has a misogynistic streak is an understatement.
Is Mamet a racist, too? It’s hard to say. That he willingly took the bait and put race on the table suggests maybe he’s not. He did, after all, grow up in a nice Jewish home on Chicago’s South Side. His dad, unsurprisingly, was a lawyer and maybe those memories triggered this legal drama. In Mamet’s world, no one gets a pass.
Race is onstage through March 17 at the DCJCC in the District. Tickets, which start at $35, are available at 800-494-TIXS or www.boxofficetickets.com