Widgets Magazine

‘Race’ provokes but falls at the finish line

Courtesy of Kevin Berne

The premise of David Mamet’s new play, “Race,” is that a group of underdog lawyers–one black lawyer (Chris Butler), one white lawyer (Anthony Fusco) and one young, black, female lawyer-in-training (Susan Heyward)–get approached, ostensibly because of the colors of their skin, by a white man (Kevin O’Rourke) accused of raping a black woman and end up taking on his case. Fifty years ago in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a black man accused of raping a white woman is necessarily found guilty by virtue of the color of his skin. Fast-forward to present day in “Race” and the rules have been reversed: the white man must be found guilty because of his inherent racial privilege. It’s not exactly an advancement in eliminating racism.

Part of what makes the play provocative is that we are never quite sure whether what we are witnessing is racism, sexism or not even prejudice at all, but with a play called “Race” we are looking for racism everywhere. At one point, the young lawyer-in-training is asked by the white lawyer to wear, in court, the sequined dress that the accuser was supposedly wearing at the time of the rape, to be part of a demonstration. She is offended. But should she be? Is it a racist request because they need a black woman to wear the dress to prove a point? Or is it a sexist one because she’s the only woman in the firm, and so she must be used for her sex rather than her wits? Or is it ageism, because she is the ingénue? Or is it perfectly harmless? She is a member of the firm, so it is her job to participate in helping with the case. Mamet balances all of these issues well, making us constantly question motives and consider if our obsession with eliminating racism today may actually be creating racism.

The play does bear Mamet’s trademarks. It is a heightened reality where all the characters are equipped with great wit and epigrams to deliver. One of the best exchanges occurs when the white lawyer reads out a quote from the newspaper, the young lawyer protests, “But that’s taken out of context!” and the white lawyer rejoins, “That’s the definition of a quote.” Since these characters are lawyers, we expect them to be skilled with words, making some of the pithy remarks somewhat believable. But sometimes the wit undermines the drama, making us laugh at verbal tricks every couple of minutes, which lightens the mood perhaps too much.

Courtesy of Kevin Berne

While the dialogue is clever, and even the interrogation of prejudice is clever, the ending is unsatisfying and downright stupid. One lawyer, whose competence and talent are convincingly displayed, does something which no lawyer would do, regardless of the lawyer’s personal values: intentionally undermine the firm’s own case. In allowing this to happen, the play seems to forget that lawyers have to defend the guilty sometimes. How can anyone get into this profession if he or she does not believe in, above all else, a person’s right to a fair trial?

About Alexandra Heeney

Alexandra Heeney writes film, theater and jazz reviews. She has covered the Sundance Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival and her favorite, the Toronto International Film Festival. As a Toronto native, the lack of Oxford commas and Canadian spelling in this bio continue to keep her up at night. In her spare time, Alex does research on reducing the environmental impact of food waste for her PhD in Management Science and Engineering.