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Mamet's RACE sizzles with fast pacing and provocative dialogue

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As I sat down in the McKinney Avenue Contemporary Theater, with its seductive thrust staging and attractive proscenium arch, I couldn’t help but feel I was being bamboozled. There it was again. And as always, it was packaged ornately like a Christmas gift from Barney New York for a beloved aging relative.

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Only the contents were all too familiar, not only to Americans, but to those who are familiar with the pristine and ugly nature of our country’s founding. Such a pretty package but as we all know, looks can be deceiving.

The gift in front of me was racism. The same gift that some Americans romanticize, others condemn, some try to avoid like the plague, and others who are adamant that as ancestors of the perpetrators of organized slavery, they are not benefactors of its practice through white privilege.

That gift is responsible for a civil war that threatened to tear down the foundation of this country in its relative infancy. The gift was the rationale to establish state and local Jim Crow laws to separate the white and black races through unequal public accommodations as well as the impetus for the black civil rights movement to dismantle those same laws. That pretty little gift was the culprit in the seismic shift of racist Democrats who flocked to the Republican Party to maintain their views and elect their first leader, the late President Ronald Reagan.

And that same gift was repackaged with the ease of that fruit cake your great aunt recycles every year to send to an unsuspecting relative. That ‘delicious’ cake has morphed into the L.A. riots following the verdict in the Rodney King police beating case; the murder trial of O.J. Simpson; the savage beating and sodomizing of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant; the massacre of Amadou Diallo, another unarmed Haitian immigrant; the dragging death of James Byrd on a country road in Texas; the slow federal response during Hurricane Katrina and hip hop artist Kanye West bashing President Bush for racial insensitivy; the highly publicized murder of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in a suburban community; the racial vitriol that was trademark during the Democratic primary race between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton; and racially charged incidents from the new Republican Party with its Tea Party faction during the 1st and 2nd terms of President Obama’s tenure.

But even with all of those images in my brain, I bravely sat down as the only black person in the audience in a sea of white people to look at the gift again and see its current incarnation in the stage play RACE, written by award-winning playwright David Mamet, and produced by the Kitchen Dog Theater running through Dec. 14.

With excellent direction from Christopher Carlos and featuring the superb talents of ensemble members Max Hartman, Jamal Gibran Sterling, JaQuai Wade, and Cameron Cobb, the director and actors takes you directly into the belly of the beast at such a feverish pace that you literally have to grip the sides of your chair to hold on. Excellent lighting and sounds cues only helped to aid in creating a cathartic theater experience. RACE is definitely a contender for the 2013 Best Stage Production on my Inaugural year-in-review “Buster’s Take” recognition list in December.

At the heart of Mamet’s witty and provocative story, we find two lawyers, one white (Jack Lawson) and one black (Henry Brown), played with grit and passion by Max Hartman and Jamal Gibran Sterling respectively, debating whether to defend a rich white business man who has been formally charged with raping a black woman.

Mamet doesn’t try to build up to or shy away from the striped zebra in the room, instead he goes full-fledged into the racial tension that attorney Brown see versus the win-loss potential attorney Lawson grapples with in keeping their firm one of the top in the city.

You can FEEL the restricted inner rage Brown expresses to his partner, especially when he makes comments like “you want to tell ME about black folk?!?” or “Do black people hate white people? Sure we do!” Sterling plays his role with equal portions of finesse, insight, emotion, and restraint which he articulates with distinct clarity in terms of the perpetual quandary facing black American who have to present two faces to the world, especially those who work in corporate America.

Likewise, Hartman exemplifies in a completely authentic and riveting manner the dichotomous mindset of progressive white Americans, in one hand a fixation with competition and winning, which he explains to Brown as they contemplate the merits of taking on the case, “neither side wants the truth, each side wants to win.” Yet in the other hand he tries to skirt away the issue of race through declarations like “I believe we are all brothers beneath the skin” even though he acknowledges that “race is the most incendiary topic in our history.”

Overseeing this racial back and forth game of tennis is the extremely talented JaQuai Wade in her role as Susan, a black and ambitious legal assistant who is new with the firm (Scandal actress Kerry Washington played this role in the Broadway debut).

The irony of Susan’s presence during this discussion and throughout the play could really be felt and it was extremely uncomfortable because both she and the rape victim are black females. All anyone could do was sit on the edge of their seat waiting to see if Susan was going to respond in solidarity with her raped sister or if she was going to pander to the rigors of corporate life. In Wade’s adept hands, she walked that tightrope with the skill of a seasoned circus high wire performer and kept building the suspense of her response up until the very end.

In the beginning, Susan is the perfect ingénue attorney in the making, illustrated when Lawson makes an off-handed statement when debating the merits of the case, “blacks are allowed to commit adultery,” to which Susan looks at him puzzled and quips “is that in the Constitution?” However, once they take the case and the tension begins to build to a simmer, when asked by Lawson for her opinion, she says strongly and with confidence “do you think black people are that stupid?!?”

Then the teapot whistles to a boil and she discovers she was the subject of racial employment hiring practices at the firm. She explodes and hisses at Lawson “you investigated ME to uncover MY character?” to which Lawson barks back “you have talent and that’s f*cking rare!”

Cameron Cobb, in his role as the wealthy defendant Charles Strickland didn’t have a lot of stage time but what he did, he maximized to the HILT. His first appearance was very typical, the spoiled pampered playboy who clearly enjoys all the material trappings his life has to offer and he can pay for anything but simply whipping out his checkbook or credit card.

It was Strickland final appearance in the play where Cobb’s ability to mentally process in a visual way for the audience the privileges that come with race and how one’s actions may seem harmless to them but are manifested through assumptions and prejudices in the receiver. Cobb brought this dynamic to life in a major way and never has a postcard metaphor and his spot-on interpretation been so damn sweet.

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RACE runs through Dec. 14 at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary (the MAC), located at 3120 McKinney Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75204.

Single ticket prices range from $15-$30 for all productions. Discounts are available for members of the MAC, TCG, KERA, STAGE, DART, ArtsCard, students and senior citizens/60+ (all with proper ID). Group rates are also available. Performances are Thursday through Saturday @ 8PM. Select Wednesdays @ 8PM and Sundays @ 2PM. For specific dates/times, visit: www.kitchendogtheater.org.

Pay-What-You-Can performances are available for the first 25 walk-up tickets on Wednesday & Thursday evenings. Seating for all performances is general admission.

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