“Everyone’s a little bit racist,” sing the puppets of Avenue Q. Then there’s sh*t white girls say to black girls. And what about anything comedienne Lisa Lampanelli says? Racism, in all its forms, is such a force in our nation (as grody as that statement sounds) that, at times, we just have to, well, laugh at it.
But David Mamet isn’t laughing. In his lean, no-nonsense play, Race, he explores the notion of everyday racism — how the color of one’s skin causes us to make decisions and take action. Well, of course, you say — that’s how the world operates, like it or not. But Mamet has such things occurring amongst a team of lawyers, who, if anything, should be relying on fact and evidence, not personal bias.
Here’s the setup: A white, white-collar, middle aged man (Patrick Clear) has been accused of raping a young black woman. Claiming his innocence (“We were in love,” he pleads), he turns to the legal power duo of Henry and Jack (Geoffrey Owens and Marc Grapey, both excellent). Charles, the defendant, has chosen this team because Henry is black. What better way to defend yourself against charges of raping a black women then by having a black lawyer represent you? Henry isn’t having it, and Jack, the firm’s founding partner, sees dollar signs. Meanwhile, their diligent — and, it needs to be said considering the play’s subject matter, black — legal assistant Susan (Tamberla Perry in a strategically subtle performance) passively observes from the sidelines.
It’s annoyingly clear that Mamet wants to shake us up a bit. Jack freely acknowledges that race drives his decision making because that’s just the way it is — and it’s how a jury thinks. His lines (deftly delivered by Grapey) elicit guffaws and mumbles from the mostly white and well-to-do Goodman audience. Meanwhile, Henry is proud of his race but despises affirmative action. Gasp! Susan — well, without giving any spoilers away, we soon find out what Susan thinks. Let’s just say she may not be the naive neophyte we assumed she was. GASP!
The problem with Mamet’s play is we have actors representing key viewpoints pitted against each other in a carefully manipulated forensics argument. It’s all very neat and tidy, and to keep it vaguely interesting, new evidence emerges at the least expected moments, which makes it all quite expected. Then the power statement final line before the abrupt blackout which leads into instant audience applause.
While Goodman’s first rate production, under the direction of Chuck Smith, makes a strong plea, it’s a crime that Mamet’s writing lacks the wit and risk to make this a winning case. Or something.
To conclude, your honor, I’ve seen Law & Order episodes that are more engaging than this disappointing play.
“Race” plays through February 19 at the Goodman Theatre. More info here >