Theater advance: ‘Race’

Unsettling considerations

David Mamet‘s “Race” looks at the incendiary topic from the perspective of several characters whose very different experiences have shaped the views they espouse.

By Naila Francis

It likely will not be a comfortable night out at the theater. But then David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who has penned works such as “Oleanna,” “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Speed-the-Plow,” has long eschewed political correctness.

And so “Race,” which continues its post-Broadway premiere at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, should provide plenty for theatergoers to chew on well after leaving their seats.

The provocative play, which opened in 2009 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and closed last summer, looks at race through the lens of a potentially sensational trial involving a white billionaire accused of raping a young black woman.

“The great thing about this play in particular and Mamet’s plays in general is he does not assuage prevailing liberal biases in the national mood, and as a result, they’re unsettling,” says Jordan Lage, part of the ensemble cast that also includes Nicole Lewis, John Preston and Ray Anthony Thomas. “My preference is to not be patted on the back or not to be given the opportunity to pat myself on the back after seeing a play that reinforces my good opinion of myself or my values but rather to tell a story in which perhaps I question my thoughts — and ‘Race’ does that.”

Lage is a Drama Desk-nominated actor who has appeared in several of Mamet’s works, including understudying James Spader and Richard Thomas in the Broadway production of “Race,” directed by Mamet himself. Here, he has the role of Jack Lawson, the slick white lawyer who must decide, along with his black partner, Henry Brown, whether to take the inflammatory new case. As a young black female lawyer from the firm is recruited to help them decide how best to represent the rich and famous defendant, each character’s feelings about race bubble to the surface, expressed with Mamet’s biting wit, keen intelligence and a crackling dialogue that doesn’t shy away from the use of coarse sexual and ethnic terms.

While the subject of race is certainly not a stage novelty, Mamet’s treatment of it is in part what intrigued Lage, as well as director Scott Zigler, a longtime Mamet collaborator. Both men have studied acting with the playwright and all three are among the founding members of off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company.

“The play is not trying to take a certain position on issues around racial interaction,” says Zigler, who directed the world premiere of Mamet’s “The Old Neighborhood” at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and then on Broadway. “What the play is trying to represent is how many different points of view surround the issue of race and how different people coming from different backgrounds and different kinds of experiences have different beliefs.

“The play is trying to bring our attention to the fact that … probably the way forward in a national discussion about race is the ability to hear other people, to see other people’s points of view, and accept the fact that other people in the world haven’t had the same experience as ourselves.”

Mamet has said that the play is about race and the lies we tell each other on the subject, and for Lage, who’s known the playwright for almost 30 years, there’s an unfortunate convenience in such self-deception, as evidenced by his character.

“He thinks that he is doing his part, perhaps unconsciously, to rectify the injustice of race relations in America. I know that sounds ridiculous but, in his own way, what he’s trying to do in his law office, which he runs in partnership with a black partner — he really feels he’s doing his best perhaps to give everyone, black, white and anybody else, a fair shake,” says Lage. “As one discovers through the course of the play, through his hubris, he’s incorrect. I find it to be a very complex and provocative take on the guy. That, for me, is the key to appreciating the character.”

In the often self-congratulatory demographic of liberal thinkers that make up the theater world, Mamet makes a bracing case for re-examining their dominant thinking.

“As a liberal in America, we kind of get comfortable with the idea of ‘I am on the right side of things, I am a broad-minded thinker, I am for equal rights for everyone,’ ” says Lage, himself an admitted liberal. “I think this play shakes that up and I think it’s good to shine the spotlight back on yourself and go, ‘You know what? Am I as saintly as I perceive myself to be? Are my values as noble and “correct” as I believe them to be?’ ”

“The play really does kind of force people to confront their own value system and belief system, for better or worse.”

It also departs from the more typical portrayal of blacks onstage in recent decades and uses what may initially be perceived as a white-versus-black scenario to also explore issues of gender, privilege and justice.

“Plays that deal with racial topics have frequently and for good reason made an effort to get the experience of being black in America from the black point of view onstage, to make the dominant culture more aware of what the experience of the minority culture has been like, because certainly prior to the 1960s, the point of view of the black writer and the black experience hadn’t been well represented in American theater,” says Zigler.

“What this play is trying to do, which is different from that, is to capture the historical moment we’re in in terms of the variety of points of view that are now colliding. … And one particular thing that’s happening in this play is to capture the kinds of generational differences that exist between the older black character and the younger black character and the different sense of empowerment that can exist from generation to generation.”

And as the characters tangle with those differences, which often lead to misunderstandings and insidious resentments, they do so in what has come to be known as “Mamet speak,” the dramatist’s signature style of dialogue rife with surging acridity and taut, syncopated rhythms.

“There are very few playwrights that write dialogue that sound like authentic speech, and I certainly appreciate (Mamet’s) use of language, his sense of rhythm and his ability to capture how different kinds of characters think and speak,” says Zigler, who as associate director at the American Repertory Theater reads dozens of new plays a year.

“Mamet has been able to make poetry out of dialogue and make poetry out of the colorful way people speak, and I’m not just talking about the profanity, which he is something of a master at,” says Lage. “He writes great characters and gives them great stuff to say in a very entertaining way.”

– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer


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