January 16, 2010

A Lot of "Race" Talk But Little New to Say

Sometimes when you see a play can matter as much as what you see.  My husband K and I saw Race, David Mamet’s new drama about the titled subject, three days after Senator Harry Reid apologized to President Obama for his comments that Obama made a good presidential candidate because he was “light-skinned” and spoke with “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”  And so I confess I was just as interested in who came to the show and how they responded to it in light of the Reid controversy as I was about what Mamet had to say.

Which turned out to be a good thing.  Because Mamet doesn’t have very much new to say.  His plot revolves around a law firm—whose senior partners are a white lawyer and a black one—that has been approached to represent a rich white man who is accused of raping a black woman. In typical Mamet fashion, there is also a quixotic young woman—in this case, a black law associate—who upsets things. 

The lawyers’ debates over whether they should take the case and how to defend the client provide the opportunity for Mamet to sound off on his feelings about race and about how we do and don’t talk honestly about it.  This is valid stuff.  As the Reid case shows, our sensitivities about the subject and the awkward inadequacies of the words we use to explain them can make it hard to have a meaningful conversation about race. But from the O.J. Simpson verdict to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright
kerfuffle that bone has already been well gnawed.

Of course well-trod ground has produced good plays before.  The problem here is that Mamet seems less interested in cultivating drama than in spouting polemics
(click here to read an essay he wrote on race relations).  His characters aren’t really people but three-dimensional placards. Some of the things they say are amusing.  Others intentionally provocative. And, this being Mamet, a lot of it is profane—including, of course, use of the N-word. But because Mamet is so careless about the plot (an over-reliance on coincidence is just one of his crimes) it’s hard to care about his mouthpieces. Which undercuts what they're trying to say.

Mamet directed the play himself, which doesn’t help.  A good director can bring a fresh eye to a new work and the questions he or she asks can help a playwright sharpen things. Mamet—and the rest of us
could have benefited from having someone else besides himself to talk to.  I also wish there had been someone else to work with the cast.  James Spader as the seemingly-cynical white lawyer gets off best, but he’s had practice in a similar role during his years on TV’s “Boston Legal” series.  He also has enough talent and stage presence to have brought something more to the part if he’d been given better guidance. 

Despite a degree from the Yale School of Drama, which is prominently noted in his Playbill bio, David Alan Grier has spent much of his career doing comedy and so he works too hard to show how no-nonsense the firm’s black partner is (click here to read a piece about his approach to the role). Kerry Washington, the pretty girl in dozens of movies, looks good here too but is too callow in her Broadway debut to bring home the goods in the climax of the play. Richard Thomas, who I’ve seen do really good work in the past, fares even worse. His rich guy is awkward and totally unconvincing.

As is usual on Broadway, the audience the night K and I saw the play was largely white but there were a good number of blacks—including the legendary R&B songwriters Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson—sprinkled here and there. The white folks laughed with relief at the jokes;  the black folks seemed to have tighter smiles on their faces. But at the end everyone stood for a standing ovation. And I saw people from both races engaged in deep discussion as they left the theater. But not with one another. 


Esther said...

You've hit on why I find Mamet so unsatifying. He uses his plays to spout off on a topic, not to create memorable, realistic characters or tell a compelling story, both of which I crave when I'm at the theater.

He has people say and do things (in this case, Kerry Washington's character) that I don't think they'd do in real life. And his characters aren't all that interesting because Mamet isn't interested in having us get to know them. They're walking, talking op-ed pieces.

And sadly, as excited as I was about seeing Richard Thomas on stage, you're right - he's pretty unconvincing as a wealthy, prominent person who believes he's been unjustly accused.

Anonymous said...

I (white female)have seen RACE six times and save for the abrupt ending have found the play to be entertaining and thought provoking. Like you, I try to gauge the audience's responses each time I see the play; unlike you I have been seated next to or near black audience members who responded exactly as I have to the material as it is spoken. During my last time there I sat beside a group of black ladies and had a very nice conversation with the woman seated to my left prior to the show and during intermission. She was enjoying the play and found it refreshing to hear the very differing opinions, some very stereotypical, said in the open and left out there for the audience members to process. Unfortunately I had to leave quickly after this particular performance, but I am sure we would have talked some more after the show ended given the opportunity.

As far as the acting I think that James Spader and David Alan Grier are excellent in their roles. I must admit that I do think Richard Thomas and Kerry Washington are still struggling with their parts because the roles are so enigmatic. That being said, I too wish Mamet had allowed another voice to direct this play. Perhaps the abrupt ending would have been tweaked and reworked with a little nudging. That being said I still find the work to be thought provoking and worthy of my patronage...particularly for the performances of the two main actors.

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jan@broadwayandme said...

Tardy thanks to you all for your comments and observations and particularly so because the issue of race remains such a difficult thing to talk—and even blog—about. I'm really glad that the Anonymous who commented on Jan. 16 had a good interracial exchange about the play. A friend who saw the show a few days after I did told me she thought there was nothing wrong with the play's saying things that had already been said because there are still people who need to hear them. Which is a good point too. But I still wish Mamet had found a more dramatically compelling way to say them.

dgl said...

Jan I agree - it all felt like old news and surprisingly unedgy for Mamet. Maybe just the thing...
in 1995?