david mamet

Todd Van Voris, Jim Iorio (center) and Reginald Andre Jackson in ART's "Race"/Owen Carey

Could David Mamet, the once-great chronicler of the moral fissures in the hyper-capitalist state (“Glengarry Glen Ross”), have anything to tell us about race in this country, having made a well- and self-publicized turn to the Hard and Simple Right in recent years? I had my serious doubts on the way into Artists Repertory Theatre’s production of “Race.” Serious doubts.

Before arriving, I’d already read the little essay by Mamet included in the program. It’s a twisted bit of “logic” that we might summarize in this equation:

Slavery + Jim Crow laws + racism + seeking personal advantage + lying = anti-discrimination laws + racism + seeking personal advantage in anti-discrimination laws + lying

Or to simplify, the following moral equivalence:

White = Black

Hey, David Mamet, that’s some bad math, at least when I start canceling out the terms, because you end up with: Slavery + Jim Crow = anti-discrimination laws.  Or maybe you DO think those are equal: “There has always been, at the very least, a little bit of hate between blacks and whites in this country, with each side, in its turn, taking advantage of its political strength (as who does not).” That’s what he says in the essay.

At least he recognizes that slavery existed, unlike former Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who argued recently that President Obama is trying to take the country to the days before the Civil War. I’m sure Mamet could corkscrew himself into a defense of that particularly position, even though it runs counter to that of his essay. Ideology will do that to you.

So, yes, I was ready for a dim, hateful one-act play about race when I arrived at ART, and I’m sure that’s what I would have gotten if Mamet the essayist had shown up. Fortunately, Mamet the artist wrote “Race,” so it was a good bit more involving, full of concentrated verbal goodness and imagination and, good heavens, even ambiguity. I think the addition of sex to “Race” had a lot to do with it, and that’s really what the title should be, “Sex and Race.”

A little plot recap: Charles (Jim Iorio) shows up at the law firm run by Jack (Todd Van Voris) and Henry (Reginald Andre Jackson), with help from a young associate, Susan (Ayanna Berkshire, who has the recurring role of Dr. Rose on the locally filmed TV series “Grimm”).  He’s rich and white, and he’s been charged with the rape of a young black woman at a hotel. The evidence against him looks pretty overwhelming, and Jack’s assessment of the racial calculus involved leads him to believe that Charles’ chances wouldn’t be particularly good even if were innocent, which, by the way, he maintains.

Jack’s African American partner Henry agrees, and he’s all for refusing Charles as a client, until Susan, a young and talented African American lawyer, makes a series of errors that establish the firm as Charles’ representatives. And so they dig in, and Jack thinks he’s found a forensics hole in the prosecution’s case!

But the plot isn’t the point, really, and it’s about to fall apart in a train wreck of coincidence at the end anyway, not to mention a completely uncharacteristic act by one of the characters. My criticism of the play itself would hinge on those failings, thought to go into them would spoil part of the pleasure, because “Race” is a lot like “The Good Wife” or some other law firm-based melodrama.

The sexual politics of the encounter between Charles, who is married by the way, and the young African American woman keep things far livelier than if Charles had been accused of systematically failing to advance African American employees in his business. And Susan has her own sexual force field, which keeps us guessing about Jack and his intentions toward her. But the characters are going to fall apart a little bit in this play, just like the plot, especially if we examine them too closely.

Ayanna Berkshire as Susan with Todd Van Voris/Owen Carey

But when I just let myself float along with the language, which the characters bite off with  savagery and certainty (it’s amazing how often certainty sounds savage!), I found myself quite happy. It’s smart, but not so challenging I couldn’t make sense of it, and the repartee around race was amusing and rang true. And by “rang true,” I simply mean that its representations of things weren’t outside our mainstream considerations of race.

So, you get lines like this:

Susan: Do you think all black people are stupid?
Jack: I think ALL people are stupid.

That’s the simplest of Jack’s formulations, which boil down to his belief that all people all the time are acting in their self-interest, and that all juries are prey to the human tendency to construct plausible stories out of the merest wisps of information and suggestions of motive. In short, yes, we are all morally equivalent because we are equally self-serving, and we are all stupid because we fall into cognitive errors so quickly. That’s how White = Black.

In the little universe of the law firm that might be the case, though Mamet subverts that idea a little bit, too, which a good artist would!  Of course, we in the audience know that we are only a click or two away on the computer from people who take that equation and twist into the foulest defense of White Supremacy, people who really do believe in what Palin alleges that President Obama wants to do. Of course, none of them will be voting for Obama in the fall.

Palin wants us to stop talking about race. Mamet understands that we have to keep talking about it: “… the dialogue will take its own course until fatigue, remorse and finally forgiveness bring resolution.”

In the play, Jack and Henry share so many of the same ideas, interests and strategies that they speak in a quick-fire language that probes the  case  and then makes sense of it once and for all, using those notions. Van Voris and Jackson are splendid at achieving the speed of tongue and sense of commonality this requires. They make a great couple as they build a world-view that works for them, together. Berkshire plays the “Eve” in this Eden, and her reserve and reservoirs of moral feeling (even when misguided) give Susan great power, the power in fact to give a perfectly reasonable worldview and good thumping. I also liked Iorio as Charles, who gives us clues about what really happened, though Jack and Henry are too intent on running what he says through their “worldview” to recognize them. See? That’s a great touch by a playwright. Anyway, Iorio constructs a believably fragmented personality outside its comfort zone, and that’s crucial to the success of the play.

And the production IS successful. Director Tamara Fisch keeps it moving at a high rate of speed without losing the definition of the characters or the issues involved, and that has the advantage of concealing the problems in the script. The only production problems on opening night came when an actor too a linguistic turn at too great a speed and brushed against the guard rails, but no one ever crashed through! A nice simple law office conference room, courtesy of designer Jeff Seats, some nice business suits by Costumer Elizabeth Huffman and Kristeen Willis Crosser’s subtle and effective lighting design all deserve mention, too.

The excellent production and Mamet’s skill as a writer don’t entirely ease my misgivings about “Race,” just because of Mamet’s point of view. No, I don’t think we are all equals in the “marriage” that Mamet employs as his closing metaphor of his essay. I think that’s a terrible analogy. The real question is about fairness: How does a post-slavery society based on race achieve something like justice — meaning , by John Rawls’ famous formulation, a set of rules and conventions that I would consider fair no matter where on the socio-economic scale I fall or what race I am.

And here, Mamet is right. That’s a long slog. And for us as individuals, self-interested and easily persuaded, as Jack suggests, and also prey to awful thoughts and prejudices, it’s even longer. We may not make it.

At the end of the play, Jack isn’t feeling too swell about things. And maybe that’s a sort of litmus test for us in the audience. If you think he’s going to get back up and try again at figuring things out, it means one thing; and if you believe he’s more likely to sink into hatred and reaction, it means another. Where I find myself in agreement with Mamet again? I think Mamet believes the former, not the latter.

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