BWW Reviews: RACE Gets Under the Skin
Race, David Mamet's incendiary exploration of truth and lies provoked by racial identity and expectation, has just completed its first week at Trustus Side Door Theatre, in collaboration with the NiA Company. Happily for Columbia audiences, it runs for another week, allowing continued opportunity for this production to provoke and bestir. Staged here in the small, spare environment of a black box theatre, Race is a decidedly adult drama underscored by barbed wit and suspense, and its enforced intimate setting creates a hothouse urgency that literally does not allow one to look away. Attention, as has been famously said in other theatre contexts, must be paid.
A relatively recent work in Mamet's extensive oeuvre, Race offers, on its face, a straightforward premise: high-profile, wealthy white middle-aged hipster Charles Strickland, (Nathan Dawson) has been accused by a young black woman of rape, and he seeks legal representation from the firm of Lawson and Brown. The triangle formed by the lawyers at the firm is the platform for the unfolding drama and complex web of deceits. Jack Lawson, a white attorney (Harrison Saunders) and his partner, black attorney Henry Brown (Darion McCloud) attempt to size up their potential client and the strength of the case they will have to defend; they must also rely upon the work of their junior colleague, black female Susan (Ericka Wright), whose status can be discerned from her lack of a surname and the tasks she is given. It soon becomes clear that facts and perceptions are intermingled, and that conscious and unconscious manipulation is the order of the day. Intense, profane, often funny, the dialogue is pure Mamet: the characters spar and over talk each other, their private thoughts, beliefs, and stereotypes washing over their professional demeanor. Yet despite its title, Race is not only about skin color and ethnicity. It also plumbs the dynamics of class, age, and especially, gender, and this production is sure to generate much discussion in its wake.
As expected in a black box setting, technical elements are understated and sufficient to carry the place and mood. This is a play that must succeed on the strength of its spoken and unspoken language, and its affective climate. Trustus/NiA's effort succeeds admirably. Director Heather McCue masterfully moves her actors through a small space, contributing to the play's internal pulse and rhythm. She also pulls solid, emotionally targeted performances from her actors. Nathan Dawson credibly conveys Strickland's appalling cluelessness, though underlying truths are set from his very first double-take at Susan. In the meatier roles, Harrison Saunders and Darion McCloud cunningly plumb the long and complex relationship of Lawson and Brown, and each offer strong and revealing moments stemming from personal and collective histories of shame and guilt. Ericka Wright's Susan adds to her personal agenda as the plot unfolds, offering up show stopping moments of her own, proving that even women without names have power and can drive events. Overall, the actors' intelligent and nuanced performances yield an effective ensemble.
It is entirely possible that a more traditionally staged production of Race would not pack the same punch as this small gem. Here, the issues are up close and personal, and uncomfortable topics cannot be held at a safe and patronizing distance. This production speaks to the theatre adage that "less is more"; let us hope that they will indeed offer more like this in the future.
Photo Credit: Rob Sprankle