March 2 – 17, 2012
Vertigo Studio Theatre
Listen to my review of Race on CBC’s Eyeopener at http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/columnists/theatre/
“Do all black people hate white folks? You bet!” This is one of the opening lines delivered by a black lawyer to his white client in David Mamet’s place Race. Typical of Mamet’s controversial and unflinching style of writing, it’s just one of the many politically incorrect barbs on race and racial interaction that populates his recent play. But in an era of HBO shows that cross all sorts of gender and racial politeness lines, movies that aren’t afraid of showing us characters behaving truthfully but badly and even reality TV shows that encourage participants to dig at each other in inappropriate ways, does Mamet’s no holds barred writing still grab us, shock us and make us think? If Race is any indication, the answer is no, not really.
Fans of classic Mamet will be happy to know that Race is a kind of return to form for him. Lately he’s been writing jaunty satirical comedic plays that have felt quite lightweight and insubstantial. But Race goes back to the kind of provocative writing he did 1984 when he examined the sleazy side of competitive capitalism in his Pulitzer Prize winning play Glengarry Glenross or his 1992 play Oleana which looked at gender politics. With Race we’re back to archetypal Mamet storytelling where, in making you think about racial issues, he aims to make you disturbed and upset and disquieted on every level.
The play is a one-act 75 minute story about 3 attorneys, 2 black and one white, who agree to defend a wealthy white man accused of raping a poor black woman in a hotel room. The story is all over the news and the media is painting him as guilty but the man claims the sex was consensual and he did nothing wrong. Now if you’re thinking Mamet was inspired by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case in which the former IMF director was charged with assaulting a hotel maid, while there are eerie similarities in the stories, but it’s all just a delicious coincidence as Mamet wrote Race in 2009.
In the play at first the lawyers don’t want to take the case because of the racial implications. They get the guy off and they’re racist. They lose and they look like they’re pandering to the black community. But eventually they find a hook for the case lets them defend their client in a way that will distract the jury from the race issue and dismiss the black white dynamic completely. Now of course, while they are coming up with a case that won’t have anything to do with race, that’s all the lawyers talk about in the boardroom – which is where the entire play takes place. It’s through this dialogue that we get Mamet’s spotlight on race and his notions of how we really think and feel about each other.
However, for a Mamet play about race, it just doesn’t feel provocative enough. I don’t know if this is because we’ve been desensitized to these kinds of discussions or because Mamet just didn’t bring it in this script. What I’m sure didn’t help, was that discussion of race happens as the legal team is prepping a defense and we’ve all seen plays or movies or even TV shows where lawyers are piggish and politically incorrect when talking amongst themselves about the realities of a case. So the fact that the success of their case hinged on race and uncomfortable discussions about public perceptions and behaviour just didn’t feel shocking at all. Sure there were some things said that I would never want to repeat but nothing that really made me think or that stayed with me. Most of the play I found myself missing the times during a Mamet performance where I would squirm in my seat with discomfort and leave the theatre feeling like I was punched in the stomach.
What does create the strongest impact in the play was the acting which was uniformly strong with one really standout performance. Joel Cochrane, who plays the white defendant, Andrew Moodie, who plays the black lawyer and Monice Peter playing the junior black lawyer are all very good. But really they are supporting roles in this play. It’s the white lawyer played by Ryan Luhning who is the star, or the mouthpiece of this play. He’s the one that delivers most of Mamet’s ideas and theories on race as he tries to unravel the white liberal ideal of correctness and decency. It’s an excellent performance Luhning gives us with great intensity of character and sharp mastering of the rapid-fire dialogue. But more importantly it’s his ability to take some very uncomfortable lines like when he explains why he believes black people are allowed to commit adultery in the public eye or why white people will always try to exploit black people, and allows his character to say these really awful things in a matter-of-fact no big deal kind of way that really shows his acting chops. I have to say he’s one of my favourite performers in Calgary right now.
By the time the play approaches the end, there is quite an interesting twist that breathes some life and controversy back into the story, but for me it wasn’t enough to make this a substantial piece of theatre. I suppose if you haven’t kept up with how contemporary cable TV or thought-provoking films are examining race then maybe this will be that kind of punch in the stomach experience for you. Otherwise I think it’s somewhat of a been there moment and I don’t know that Race has anything interesting to add to the discussion.
For the guys – Mamet is a very macho writer who gives his male characters rough dialogue and aggressive personalities that does get the adrenaline going. While not as biting as his other plays, it might be interesting to see where you stand on Mamet’s take on racial and gender realities. MAYBE SEE IT
For the girls – The one female character is fairly weak in comparison to her male colleagues and its women as much as blacks that get the brunt of the foul language and ideas in this play. But it’s never bad to know how you are perceived and portrayed. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – If you’ve never seen a Mamet play and are open to some uncomfortable discussions on racial issues then perhaps this will be a play that gets your blood boiling and your mind questioning. However with offensive language and not a great story-line, this play may just seem like shock value with no enjoyment factor. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – Strong acting aside, its David Mamet light. You may want to see it just to top off your repertoire of his plays, but you could easily skip it and miss not much. MAYBE SEE IT