"Race": Mamet Seizes the Issues, Loses the Drama

If Race showcases any of playwright David Mamet's virtues, it's prescience.

The play, which premiered in 2009 and is now running at ACT, follows a familiar-sounding story. Charles (Kevin O'Rourke), a rich and powerful white guy, seeks the aid of lawyers Henry (Chris Butler), who is black, and Jack (Anthony Fusco), who is white, to prove his alleged hotel-room rape of a black woman (who never appears in the play) was consensual sex — a case complicated by his past peccadilloes and her impurity.

That this premise, and the debate it stirs among Mamet's characters, so aptly presaged the Dominque Strauss-Kahn case, and the international discussion it instigated, shows the playwright hasn't lost his ability to anticipate the zeitgeist.

Anthony Fusco and Susan Heyward in Mamet's Race.
Kevin Berne
Anthony Fusco and Susan Heyward in Mamet's Race.

But a timely scenario does not in itself make for a successful drama. Race does have the outline of one: Mamet keeps the balance of power in constant flux, and he contrives a steady flow of fresh, preposterous developments — the fact that sequins tend to fall off dresses is supposedly the crux of the defense.

Mamet has described this play as "an addition to the dialogue" about race, but it sounds more like a conversation-ending monologue that has less to do with our society's real problems than with the nightmarish vision born of one extremist's own prejudice. His goal seems to be to show race as such a complicated, evil-inspiring force that the law can offer little help against it.

The people he creates and the things he makes them say are ludicrous, but Mamet does try to keep one foot in a realistic world. His overworked lawyers make shady deals and terse phone calls over takeout in an encyclopedia-lined conference room. But at the same time, near strangers can magically converse in politically incorrect blanket statements: "Black people can talk about race," complains one. "Do all blacks hate white folks? You bet we do," asserts another.

The lines aren't just unrealistic. In Charles' case, they're downright incredible. Another refers to him as "white man, rich man," which evidently means he can defend himself with questions like, "If I give her money, does that mean I paid her?" Worse, in reference to his comparison of visiting the Caribbean to "being in some hot, black cunt," he demands, "You're saying my remark was racist?"

If it seems improbable that such doltish remarks could come from someone who's supposedly made it to the upper echelons of the business world (and the absurdity is only amplified by O'Rourke's comical gruffness), consider Jack's young apprentice, Susan (Susan Heyward), who is black. She does little more than repeat a rehearsed answer to whatever leading question Jack asks her, delivered with cheerleader intonations, and peppy hip-pops or sensual sashays. In the trample of this he-man world, she would have been squashed long ago. When Henry asks her, "Did you fucking go to law school?" it is as though someone finally understands the audience's befuddlement.

Henry and Jack's characters pose problems, too: Why must this play be structured around the white-male consciousness of Jack? Why would a lawyer clearly aware of potential lawsuits propose to Susan that during the trial she wear a sequined dress so Jack could throw her down on a mattress and rip it off — supposedly to demonstrate how sequins behave? Why does Henry, who is black, speak such undiluted down-home dialogue, and seemingly have neither ideological conflicts nor ideas about how to advance their argument? This play refers often to a racial double standard — is Henry just evidence that Mamet suffers from it, too?

It's not my wont to analyze a play by asking whether every character's flaws stem from prejudice on the part of the playwright. But the way these conversations are structured, it's hard to have another response. Characters ask each other the same questions about the case, and answer them with lines like, "because he's white." Every time someone tries to acknowledge one prejudice, he discovers another; before long, he's stuck in a spiral of self-questioning.

But the questions resonate less than the absolutist statements do — the most absolutist of whichis the title itself. All you need to know about this playis that it's called Race. It's sexy. It's aggressive. It's reductive. Let's just hope that Mamet's next playisn't called Gender.

 
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