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Saturday, 11 February 2012 18:56

What we talk about when we talk about 'Race'

Written by Andrea Braun
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What we talk about when we talk about 'Race' / Jerry Naunheim Jr.

“You’re just two wonderful people who happened to fall in love and happened to have a slight pigmentation problem,” said the concerned dad played by Spencer Tracy.

The year was 1967, the movie was "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner", and the admittedly superficial romantic comedy had a mostly upbeat outlook about interracial marriage. Fast forward 45 years.

Most don’t find such couples to be curiosities anymore, but even so, Tracy’s line seems hopelessly naïve. This “pigmentation problem” has become one of the signal defining issues of the 21st century, here taken on by David Mamet in his 2009 play, "Race". The “issue” is not, according to what I heard from Mamet, about marriage, dating, friendship or any of that other b******t, it’s about trust. Can black people trust white people and vice versa, or are we still so linked to our own “tribes” that we cannot bridge the river of fear and loathing that inevitably threatens to drown us?

While Tracy also warned the movie couple that they would run into bigotry and even hatred, I think well-intentioned people still believed that black/white relations were improving back then. But was it possible to reconcile an “uppity” maid AND a distinguished physician as an African-American son-in-law? The disconnect was played for laughs; now, it would be a central part of the conundrum that is racial relations in the United States today. (NOTE: I’m not discussing other races here because the play does not.) One of the characters says that “Race is the most incendiary topic in our history.” Is it? Let’s discuss:

Our “pigmentation problem” manifests itself in the upscale law firm where we find ourselves with Morocco Omari as Henry Brown (“Brown,” really?) and Jeff Talbott as Jack Lawson (maybe I’m looking too hard for meaning in the names, but I’m finding it) as the black and white partners. They are deciding with their assistant “Susan” (a newly minted attorney with no last name; Zoey Martinson) whether to take the case of Charles Strickland, who is indeed stricken, by a rape charge from a woman he claims to have loved and with whom he had a relationship including consensual sex. Strickland (Mark Elliot Wilson) isn’t actually corporeally present during much of the play, but his presence hangs over all the proceedings.

Now it’s going to get difficult to discuss the plot without giving away things you shouldn’t know until you see the show. I can tell you they do take the case, but not how that comes about. I can tell you that at first, they all believe he’s guilty, but that’s not how everyone feels later. It’s okay to say they disagree, that things get ugly among the three lawyers,that the balance of power shifts and shifts again, and that things don’t necessarily end up where we expect them to go. Got it? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

It is also permissible to discuss the relative merits of the work itself and the big issues it tackles. First, "Race" is entertaining throughout and is surprisingly funny. I mean, it’s no surprise that a Mamet play is funny, but it’s interesting that this one is. But are we laughing comfortably? Not really, but then if you want to do that, just stay home with a “Dick Van Dyke Show” rerun. The lines are sharp, for the most part, but there are some discomfiting tricks involved with who says what to whom that make it seem that Mamet wants to prick us but not make us bleed. I felt at times as if he were about to get to the precipice, but then the fear of the fall made him take a couple of steps back. In terms of a social issue screed, this is no "Glengarry Glen Ross" or even "Oleanna".

But maybe "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" got it right in a way: Could it be easier to marry a person of another race than to be colleagues or friends? Strickland is a rich Harvard graduate who has retained his lifelong sense of entitlement, as well as his patrician good looks—sort of old movie star, maybe Stewart Granger, you know the type—he strikes poses when he stands, at least at first. He’s been married to a (presumably) white woman a long time, but he has also long been attracted to black women. He buys into the stereotype that they are sexually freer than their white sisters, and maybe in his group, they are. He is the uber-WASP, so since many seem to attach to their stereotypes when their sense of self is shaky, Mrs. Strickland may not be a ball of fire in the sack. And beyond the fact that a black woman is exotic to such a man, she is younger and so he feels virile by association. Race really has nothing to do with it, but because of the rape accusation, it comes to have everything to do with it.

Throughout the play, assumptions are made based on flimsy evidence, a nice irony with a bunch of lawyers. Besides the central issue, “guilt” and “shame” are discussed at some length, or perhaps more accurately, pontificated upon and assigned stereotypes by Jack as he stalks the room displaying the intrinsic sense he has of his own alpha status in the company of two black people, one his professional equal, the other a very smart woman (noted by Jack) who is probably his intellectual superior. But he is WHITE, you see, and that is the trump card that is always held but never has to be played, except when he cheats and games the system because he is afraid of what affirmative action misused could do to his career.

Most of the time, Jack is confidently in charge. When he tells Susan to leave the room, she does; when he asks Henry to “hot walk” Strickland outside the office, he takes off to cool the client down without questioning Jack’s authority. Yes, Jack is the senior partner (I assume because we aren’t told) but the two have been in practice together for 20 years. And it is important to note that the white people aren’t the only ones who are bound by preconceived notions here. As nearly as he can with this theme, Mamet does strike a balance. Finally, as much as anything else, I think a case could be made for "Race" being about the universal human tendency to rush to judgment, because everyone here does that too.

I can’t say whether you’ll find the end of "Race" satisfying or not. Some will, I think, and some won’t. Certainly there will be no dissension about the quality of the acting or Timothy Near’s direction, especially the movements and body language of the players. The first act runs only 35 minutes, and I don’t know whether Mamet dictated that or not, but I didn’t care for it. This play depends a lot on momentum, and the “preface” interrupted that. The set is a realistic depiction of a sleek, modern office and is very well imagined by John Ezell. The costumes are character defining and the lights look just right. One little bit of the sound design, an abrupt “POW” punctuates the action on entrances and exits that are militarily precise. Nice work by Myrna Colley-Lee, Brian Sidney Bembridge, and Rusty Wandall.

I’d like to be able to break this play down and follow its trajectory, especially a couple of places where I think credulity is stretched too far, but I can’t do that. If you see it, let’s talk. Oh, wait, we can’t because Mamet has forbidden talkbacks. To compensate, the Rep is having an evening program on Monday, Feb. 27 with a panel discussion and scenes from plays that interrogate the issue of race from various perspectives. If you attend the play before then, there’s a flyer in your program or you may visit for details. And, as always, this is Mamet, so "Race "is rated P.G. for language.

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