Celebration Arts production of David Mamet’s “Race”: notes and comments

I’ve been thinking lately that it’s really quite easy to convince someone of something they already believe to be true.  The reason I came to that conclusion, and why such an obvious truism should need to be restated, will be come clear in a moment.

But let me offer up a comment about belief.  One of the most iconic movies about race and racism was Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” — and one might think (as I did for years) that it served as a beacon of reason, of passionate regard for our need to change.  I’ve come to doubt that it was that at all; but rather it was a piece of propaganda — and for all it’s glory it did not change anyone’s mind about anything.  I think it’s quite rare that anyone is ever reasoned out of a belief.

Which is not to say it wasn’t useful: it served to allow a whole generation of people to say — “that’s how I feel!”, and then politicians could use that as an exit poll of sorts to craft legislation that responded to the mass of feelings uncovered — a wall of desire to change the way people regarded each other.  As it so happens I enjoyed the movie, and “believed” in it — but I think time has revealed not everyone did.  And some things have not changed.

And that brings us around to Celebration Arts production of David Mamet’s “Race.”  Four actors — Rob Anthony Gray, Gregory Smith, Chis Lamb and Alana Matthews play three attorneys and one man (Greg Smith) accused of raping a black woman.  The white man, one Charles Strickland, is a hapless patsy who seems to have a fetish for black women.  The lead attorney is a Jewish white man, Jack Lawson, a man with what one might call a streak of idealism tempered by a wider streak of cynicism, Rob Anthony Gray plays the junior partner Henry Brown, a black man with no idealism but a marvelously healthy pragmatism (and some righteous indignation.) Alana Matthews plays a young attorney, Susan, recently brought on board to start her career.  Her idealism has a very slow burn, but when it ignites it’s quite hot.  White hot, as it turns out.

As the evidence is presented in the play, it appears that Charles Strickland didn’t rape anyone.  It’s not clear that he didn’t, but it’s less clear that he did.  But the very idea that he was having a relationship with a black woman, made all the worse that she might be a prostitute, is a formula for bad press.  Which the play is full of.  Because it’s bad enough for a white man to have a fetish for black women, but to pay one to submit to one’s carnal ambitions is — well, racism.  Isn’t it?

The play was well staged and very well acted.  A marvelous fun thing to watch, in spite of the content — terse, quick, well timed, intense.  I really enjoyed it.

But I couldn’t quite say that the play was about race or racism.  Then I would tell myself, well yes it has to be.  Because there are some black people who are angry with a white man.  Then I would argue myself out of that and say, well really what we have here is really lies, deceit, and betrayal. Happens all the time, right? How is that racism?

And the betrayal is so outrageous, so patently detrimental to the law firm, the case, the defendant, and the various officers of the court that are involved, that it transcends race. It surely did, and it is quite common that people are that venal and exhibit bad intent and race has nothing to do with it.

So I next asked myself, would this have happened were the participants all of one color?  It certainly could.  Did the situation require the outcome? No.

But that doesn’t change what happened — and the attitudes expressed are so believable, so visibly true even today (see Donald Sterling et al. Or “The Last White Knight“)  — that Mamet’s “Race” is about race after all.  Didn’t need to be, shouldn’t be, but was.

All those beliefs, assumptions, all those passions, and those unmet needs, are not subject to reason. Convinced is as good as truth.


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