BWW Reviews: Mamet's RACE Sizzles with Fast Pacing and Provocative Dialogue

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's of New York for a beloved aging relative.

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 break 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 in 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 that in my brain, I bravely sat down as the only black person in the audience amongst 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. This play is definitely a contender for 2013 Best Stage Production on my Inaugural year-in-review "Buster's Take" recognition list.

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 that he articulates with distinct clarity 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 were black females and you just sat on The Edge of your seat waiting to see if she was going to respond in solidarity with her sister or if she was going to pander to the rigors of corporate life.

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