David Mamet has described his hyper-provocative 2009 drama Race, currently mounted in an outstanding production by the Philadelphia Theatre Company, as “a play about lies.” Some things Mamet considers convenient lies (or, at the very least, willful naïvité): Most Americans don’t have a racist bone in their body. Race is unimportant and everyone is the same. The election of Barack Obama put us in a post-racial America.
Mamet counters that everyone is racist, people aren’t the same and that we as a nation have a long way to go before the subject of race can be put to rest. And as the title suggests, Race examines these lies and why they persist—specifically in the context of the long and often contentious relationship between black and white Americans.
The play takes place in a conference room at a law office, which scenic designer Kevin Rigdon imagines as a converted warehouse with a frosted glass entryway that distorts everything on the other side. The firm’s partners, Jack (Jordan Lage) and Henry (Barrymore nominee Ray Anthony Thomas), sit around a large conference table. Jack is white; Henry is African-American, as is young lawyer Susan (Nicole Lewis), whom Jack hired right out of law school over Ray’s objections. With them is a potential new client, Charles (a subdued John Preston), a rich white man and prominent community figure who has been charged with raping a young African-American woman in a hotel room.
The first act focuses on Charles’ alleged crime, whether the firm will accept him as a client (a debate that is a bit too long and is awkwardly resolved) and a possible defense, orchestrated entirely by Jack. After the rare fault of an unnecessary intermission that disrupts the play’s momentum, the focus changes from Charles’ crime to the relationship between the three lawyers.
Although the play never enters an actual courtroom, Race maintains the structure and language of a classic courtroom drama—accusations are hurled, denials are issued, guilt is evaluated. But Race doesn’t offer a confession, indictment or acquittal. It’s Mamet’s contribution to America’s long discussion of race, an ongoing discussion since the founding fathers gathered for the first Continental Congress in 1774.
Some critics have labeled Race cynical; others see it as honest. In truth, it’s both. It’s certainly not a typical example of those plays that well-intentioned companies tend to mount during Black History Month—plays often consumed by predominantly white audiences, who listen sympathetically to the horrors endured by black victims of institutional racism.
It’s not that these plays are bad—in fact, they’re usually quite good and, it can be argued, a helpful means of promoting a greater understanding of racial issues. What these plays generally aren’t is controversial, in particular tending to avoid that one particular word beginning with the letter N, that unavoidable sign that modern America is far from post-racial.
Mamet, for his part, doesn’t shy away. Race is unrelentingly confrontational and uncomfortable, the playwright seeming to revel in the power that people can so often forget still exists in certain words. At the performance I attended, the racially mixed audience reacted to the play’s most incendiary language with a ripple of shocked (but not appalled) whispers and glances. Under Scott Zigler’s confident direction (Zigler is a longtime associate of Mamet’s and has directed many of his works), PTC’s production crackles with tension. Zigler is well-known as an actor’s director (he cowrote one of America’s acting bibles, A Practical Handbook for the Actor), and he inspires a number of forceful performances that propel PTC’s production.
Lage is particularly commanding as the white lawyer Jack. He doesn’t talk to people; he cross-examines them. He asks questions to which he already knows the answers (or thinks he does), and in Lage’s performance, Jack is confident to the point of arrogance. Lacking in empathy, he is incapable of seeing or understanding different points of view. Lage isn’t a big man, but his Jack seems to fill the room, pushing out all opinions other than his own.
By contrast, Thomas’ Henry is more reserved, at times almost subservient. As the play develops, however, Thomas lets anger slowly bubble to the surface. Henry doesn’t like or trust most white people (including perhaps Jack), but doesn’t let it get in the way of his work. Thomas’ carefully crafted performance reveals Henry to us in layers; with each scene, our impression of him and his relationships with Jack and the case changes.
Lewis’ Susan is likewise mysterious, but this can be attributed more to Mamet’s plotting than the actress’ performance. Lewis manages to develop the character beyond a simple plot device (which Susan could easily be in the hands of an inferior actress), but she remains the least interesting of the quartet.
Rounding out the ensemble is Preston’s fascinating Charles. Outwardly contrite for a crime he claims not to have committed, in Preston’s performance we get no glimpse of Charles as the charismatic community leader he apparently once was. We can’t reconcile what we’re told about Charles and the man we see. As played by Preston, Charles is an enigma, and though we find him intriguing, it’s impossible to definitely determine his guilt or innocence.
In the past decade PTC has emerged as one of the nation’s top producers of contemporary American drama. Sure-handed and impeccably crafted, it’s incisive production allows us to draw our own conclusions about the play and the character of the people in it. Race isn’t Mamet’s finest play, but at PTC it is certainly interesting, and offers a compelling look at America’s racial divide.
Through Feb. 13. $25-$59. Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. 215.985.0420.
Calendar: Sept. 2-9