At the beginning of David Mamet’s fascinating 2009 drama “Race,” a black lawyer poses a bold question to a potential client, a wealthy white man accused of raping a black woman.
“Do you know what you can say to a black man about race?”
“Nothing,” Charles Strickland replies.
“Correct,” says the attorney, Henry Brow.
This exchange sets the tone for the rest of the riveting 90-minute play currently on offer in an excellent production directed by The Kalamazoo Civic’s Executive Director Stephen Carver at the Parish Theare.
It’s a courtroom drama set in a law office, wherein two black characters and two white characters remove all filters and speak what is generally unspeakable about people’s inherent racism and particular attitudes about race in America. Two lawyers, their law clerk (the lone woman whose presence disrupts the misogyny and so much more), and the accused, volley back and forth, in Mamet’s trademark rapid-fire dialogue that makes use of nearly every impolite if not offensive word in American vernacular, ultimately revealing their own bigotry—as well as the audience’s—and its deep roots in guilt and shame.
The play has been criticized for being overly character driven and lacking a strong plot that’s as shocking as some of Mamet’s other works; however, to watch what feels like a move toward real honesty, and anticipate how the characters will respond to the witty and shocking (I literally gasped out loud on one occasion) things they say, propels the action along quite nicely, and makes for a gripping evening of theater that, undoubtedly, will spur further conversation among its audience members long after curtain call.
“Race” is a bold choice, especially for a community theater, and it’s one to be commended and supported.
The successes of this production are many, from excellent design elements and performances to the staging and blocking, which makes marvelous use of the Parish’s theater in the round. The audience members are looking at the drama unfolding, but also looking at each other, which is beautifully symbolic of what we must do to move through difficult situations and conversations about race. There is no looking away, and it’s brilliant.
As is the performers’ use of space, shifting and moving around an appealing boardroom created by April Thomson; with subtle shifts in lighting design by Maya Ablao and attractive overhead lights that grow softer and warmers well as effective props by Stacy Bartell and costumes by Liz Haas. It all adds up to something visually interesting though talking is the primary action.
Dustin Morton D.C. plays an excellent Jack Lawson, the most complicated character on stage, and Ron Ware brings more interest and depth than is written to Henry Brow, Lawson’s partner. They’re jerks, as written, but utterly compelling.
Scott Horn plays a smug Charles Strickland, convincing as a man to whom no one has said no in 40 years, and his turn toward repentance, but for the wrong thing, is an intriguing twist.
Emirrora Austin hits all the right notes as Susan, at turns demure, self-righteous, and indignant. She’s wonderful as the bold catalyst who throws a wrench in this sausage fest.
Mamet wrote and directed “Race” nearly a decade before the #metoo movement dramatically changed how we look at and talk about sex and power, though when Susan declares “This isn’t about sex; this is about race,” and Jack replies “What’s the difference?” the weight of intersectionality feels even heavier.
There’s certainly more unpacking to be done individually and culturally, and though “Race” at the Parish doesn’t offer solid answers, it marvelously complicates the issues with verisimilitude, the likes of which one is unlikely to encounter except on stage. But to encounter it there is to bring it forward into life. And that is the gift the Kalamazoo Civic is offering with “Race.”
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre
Feb. 28-March 14