Monday, May 03, 2010

David Mamet's "Race"

I enjoyed the play, performed in the Barrymore Theatre, more than I thought I would. When LW watched it, she walked out after the first act because she did not find its portrayal of racial issues in America convincing. She also explained, interestingly, that because she grew up in the South, she has a certain idea of racism. Not having grown up in the States, I have no idea how "true" the play is to racism in America. The perspectives depicted in the play may be unrealistic, overdrawn or cliched to many Americans, but I still find the play thought-provoking.

A legal firm, with a white male principal, a black male principal and a black female associate, decides if and how it should defend a white man accused of raping a black woman. Jack Lawson (James Spader) is the tough-minded white lawyer who investigated Susan more extensively than other non-black applicants, before hiring her for being talented and black, although she lied in her application. Henry Brown, played by a forceful David Alan Grier, is the black middle-class professional, clear-eyed about racial prejudice and proud of speaking the unspoken truth. He is the most likable of the characters, and in him I sense a leniency of judgment on the part of the playwright and director Mamet. He is also subordinate to Jack, although both men have built up the firm together. Twice, on Jack's orders, Henry sees their client out. Jack is the only character who remains on stage throughout. The play is very much about Jack, and in this sense both black characters serve as means to the end of his self-epiphany.

Kerry Washington played Susan with just the right amount of idealistic naivete. The role is limited but she filled it out with purposeful intensity. Her anger was all the more effective in the denouement for being barely restrained. Richard Thomas, as the alleged rapist Charles Strickland, was perfectly hateful in his assumption of white privilege.

When Jack asks Susan to model in court the red sequin dress that Charles is supposed to have torn off his victim, the play makes clear that it is almost as much about sexism as it is about race. Hard to speak of one without bringing in the other.

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