David Mamet has a penchant for taking otherwise erudite, altruistic individuals and dumping them, right in the middle of a vicious brawl. He seems to delight in it. Oleanna, Glengarry, Glen Ross, Edmond, in Mamet’s world, it seems, street cred nearly always trumps intellect. And getting what you want, trumps the empty victory of salvaging honor. The professor’s downfall in Oleanna is twofold. He realizes too late his female student is playing from a different rule book, and he abandons the high ground just when he needs it most. Oleanna ends, unresolved, with the two grappling on the floor like wrestlers. There’s a visceral satisfaction to finally witnessing his retribution against this snake, but we can only imagine the repercussions of his attack. Who knows? Maybe Mamet doesn’tcare.
I’m guessing most people familiar with Mamet, and his exhilarating skill for dragging us through tumultuous, excruciating ordeals, were eagerly anticipating the opening of Race at Kitchen Dog Theater. Armed with a meticulous, powerful cast, Christopher Carlos directed this drama about race relations and the possibility of getting justice in 21st Century America. Charles Strickland (Cameron Cobb) a wealthy white man, is charged with raping an African American woman. After being turned down by a Jewish lawyer, he approaches Jack Lawson (Max Hartman) and Henry Brown (Jamal Gibran Sterling) a small firm comprised of one white attorney, one black, and an African American Legal Assistant named Susan (Jaquai Wade). Neither one of them wants to take on the case (win or lose, they’ll still look bad) but Susan makes a couple of tactical errors and they’re stuck with this dog. Once they are resigned to the case, however, they start strategizing.
Most of what is engaging and compelling in Race is the cynicism of Lawson and Brown, as they explain to Strickland and Susan the fundamental steps to winning the case. Essentially, the idea is to come up with a version of events that keeps the jury amused, while providing the opportunity to acquit. They must evaluate the truth of what dwells in the unenlightened hearts of the jury, as opposed to the lame, unconvincing Truth. Strickland himself is so overcome with ambivalence, he doesn’t know how to act in his own best interest. Susan, who is highly intelligent and has passed the bar, keeps making mistakes and squabbling with Lawson over their appalling disregard for character and virtue.
Given the premise (and a cast of only four characters) of Race, it’s pretty easy to surmise where it’s all headed : Winning a case is all about manipulation and tacit brutality. If you want actual justice, professional ethics will only get in the way. We’d like to think we’re all terribly evolved when it comes to issues of bigotry and intolerance, but we’re really not. The entire play fairly aches with the irony that Strickland has come to this law firm for advocacy; the one place or occasion where they should (if only for practical reasons) be immune to racial friction. But no one is immune. Like Clybourne Park, The Great White Hope and Avenue Q, Mamet says, “If you think you’re immune, you’re wrong.” Obviously there’s a lot of insight to these revelations. But the question is, how effectively does Mamet use them? In the thick of this dialectic, how gripping is the show?
It’s surprising when we consider the content and conflict of Race, how cerebral, how restrained it is. It lacks audacity. It lacks juice. It’s not the cast’s fault, they’re doing their best, and it’s interesting for what it is. It’s not bad, but when you’re used to being clobbered by an overwhelming, irresistible, electrifying cyclone. When Mamet has demonstrated, time and again, his masterful ability to engulf us in a torrent of sloppy, ugly, grieving, disconsolate upheaval, then by comparison, Race is a bit disappointing.
Kitchen Dog Theater presents Race, playing November 15th-December 14th, 2013. 3120 McKinney Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75204. 214-953-1055. www.kitchendogtheater.org