The Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater production of David Mamet’s Race—the first in a stellar lineup celebrating the theater’s 35th anniversary—is more nuanced, thoughtful, and ultimately satisfying than the play itself deserves: WHAT delivers a tour de force of social commentary that leaves the audience thinking… the goal, after all, of great theatre.
A wealthy white public figure, Charles Strickland (Bill Mootos) has fallen back on his second choice of legal representation after being accused of raping a black woman and trying to manipulate his defense team. The partners in this small firm, white Jack Lawson (John Kooi) and black Henry Brown (Johnny Lee Davenport), aren’t sure this is a case they want. Their junior associate Susan (Tyra Ann-Marie Wilson), a young black woman, listens as they interview the prospective client. Through a series of “errors” on Susan’s part, the firm is engaged to represent Strickland before the partners are ready to commit.
Mamet first uses the initial client interview to deliver trite aphorisms about the legal profession before finally excavating some of the layers of perception and assumptions in play when race becomes an issue at trial. As Henry points out to Charles, the legal process is about three things: hatred, fear, or envy, “and you just hit the trifecta.” Charles is astonished that his accustomed white privilege isn’t going to help him navigate this situation and the lawyers are cynically amused by his assumptions.
When Susan first enters the conversation, she’s not shy about going after the partners. “You think black people are stupid?” she challenges Jack, who responds, “I think all people are stupid. I don’t think blacks are exempt.” It’s a facile answer that is probably true—but also underlines whites’ tendency to protest they don’t think of blacks differently. Of course they do; we’re all racist, and Mamet knows just when to hammer that home. “She’s black. We cannot put. Enough white people. On the jury. To find one who is not afraid. Of being thought prejudiced. By letting him off.”
While Race isn’t light entertainment, the interplay between Kooi and Davenport is a sheer pleasure to watch. They make Mamet’s terse snappy sentences sound like real dialogue, and have a tremendous sense of timing together; it’s like watching a ball being passed deftly between the two. Davenport in particular positively inhabits his role, while Kooi is the quintessential Mamet male, dismissive and too clever for his own good. Susan seems an intrusion between the two, as indeed she is; Wilson plays her as somewhat sneakily judgmental of everything—the system, the men, the racism.
It’s Susan who has the final monologue that carries Mamet’s point home: “Do you want me to tell you about white people? The silver spoon was missing and you fired the maid. You cannot help yourselves. And you wonder how black people feel about you? As you said. We know. You will betray us. Every chance you get. Like children. Like sick children.”
One would like to think Race could stand in for all the other instances of the system’s treatment of have’s versus have-nots as they navigate the legal world and indeed life, but the fact that there’s almost as much misogyny and sexism wound tightly into the men’s conversations around the accuser, Susan, and indeed women in general, is off-putting. There’s a sense that only one dimension of a complex issue—rape—is being explored here, others shelved for another time. One might have expected a little more.
That doesn’t in any way detract from the production itself. J.P. Pizzuti’s set design is pure Mamet, very masculine, very over-the-top in terms of empty spaces and standard legal accoutrements. Jackie Davis has a particularly light hand and renders a delivery from the actors that is less staccato and more accessible than Mamet’s often played. And Davenport, Kooi, Wilson, and Mootos all imbue their characters with strong, often cynical, but very definite points of view. We may not agree with them; we may not even like them; but we still want to hear them.
And have them leave us thinking.
Production photos by Michael & Suz Karchmer
RACE is at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater from June 7 – 28. Tickets at what.org or by calling the box office at 508.349.9428