“Do all Black folks hate Whites? Let me put your mind at rest. Yes. We. Do.”
That’s one of the lines from “Race,” a stunning play penned by the Pulitzer Prize-winning David Mamet, who also penned The Untouchables and CBS’ The Unit. “Race” opened this week at Chicago’s acclaimed Goodman Theatre. (It also hit Broadway in 2009.) Suffice it to say that Henry, played by Geoffrey Owens, had me at that first sentence.
“Race” is the story of a high profile law firm tapped to handle a racially scandalous case. The firm is biracial, and the partners - Black attorney Henry (Owens) and White attorney, Jack (Marc Grapey) - are asked to defend a wealthy White client, Charles (Patrick Clear) accused of raping a Black woman. The new associate helping out is the Ivy League-educated Susan (Tamberla Perry), who, of course, is a good-looking sista.
The plot twists and turns as the characters, directed by Chuck Smith, exhibit the best and worst of race and gender relations. No stereotype is left out of the quick banter and high-level theorems the lawyers bandy about as they discuss their approach to defending their client. At issue: is Charles guilty of being a rich White man or is he guilty of rape?
In short, this story is quite the cerebral trip.
Most remarkable about this play is the idea that we harbor prejudices and use stereotypes that we often exploit for our purposes. It seems that Mamet is saying there is no way to rise above it – it’s in us. And, should we choose to use it, we might emerge the winner in an odd sort of gender or race battle.
When “Race” first debuted, it didn’t have the benefit of pop culture being inundated with stories of poor minority women being raped by rich, White men. But last year, a New York hotel maid accused a rich, White guy of rape, and many people of color – no matter what played out in the police investigation – still question the case. These real-life reverberations bring more bite to Smith’s slickly produced interpretation of this play.
To be clear, “Race” has uncomfortable moments. And, though likely unintended, much of it is absolutely hilarious. The F-bomb. The P-bomb. The S-bomb and all sort of interesting epithets are uttered. Base? Yes. Real? Absolutely. Though some knocked Mamet for making people laugh rather than gasp, I rather enjoyed the bawdiness.
Henry says what we all think about White men accused of raping Black women. Charles says what we all surmise White men think about having sex with Black women. Though the set never changed, it didn’t matter. Each character, expertly played, drew me in and held me tight. There were also moments that nodded to the most existential of questions. Confession, atonement and reparations figure loudly.
In particular, I enjoyed Perry’s performance. With her perfect King’s English, buttoned up secretary shirt, svelte figure and pent up sexual aggresion, she rocked the stage with a quiet power. Owens, who we also know from The Cosby Show, was the definition of spite. And the White guys? They had me 100% convinced – especially Grapey, who just made me cringe with his self-righteousness (“I think all people are stupid. I don’t think Blacks are exempt.”) I loved him for it.
How on earth could Mamet, a Jew, have so much insight into the American Black experience? That’s a story for another day. Until then, “Race” plays at the Goodman until February 19. Tickets start at $25.
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