BWW Reviews: RACE Challenges Audiences Now Through Nov 13

In every case there are two fictions, two sides, each trying to tell the better story, each trying to triumph. Law isn't about justice. It's about winning. The truth is elusive. As personal prejudices come into play, the truth sneaks further and further into the background, especially in cases involving race and sex. Pulitzer Prize winner, David Mamet's play RACE explores the various prejudices and positions in racial arguments. Refreshingly, Mamet does not take sides. Instead, he focuses on getting the audience to think and to speak for themselves. 

RACE, playing at the American Conservatory Theatre through November 13, follows two lawyers, their assistant, and their client: Charles Strickland (played by Kevin O'Rourke), a rich white man charged with raping a black woman. The black Henry Brown (played by Chris Butler) and white Jack Lawson (played by Anthony Fusco) take on the case and begin to build an argument for Strickland's innocence, while Susan, their assistant (played by Susan Heyward), believes Strickland guilty from the start. As the supposed facts unfold, characters are forced to consider their own prejudices and to confront each other about them.

Rather than attempt to be politically correct, Mamet challenges the euphemisms of race and the lack of discussion on race in the modern world. He writes in a way that does not automatically brand the white man as racist, but that also does not claim complete innocence. The characters of RACE suggest that all people are guilty and that prejudice is unavoidable, even if people try to hush discussion with claims of living in a post-racism world. The white person fears offending the black person while the black person often hates white people and may assume automatic guilt in a case like that of Charles Strickland. Both people need to put aside automatic judgments and start talking. 

Mamet writes, "Race, like sex, is a subject on which it is near impossible to tell the truth. In each, desire, self-interest, and self-image make the truth inconvenient to share not only with strangers, but with members of one's own group, and, indeed, with oneself."

Mamet ends his play rather abruptly and leaves the audience unsure of the concluding "truth." While somewhat irritating, this sudden ending leaves the audience to make decisions on their own, the author's intention in the first place.The law drama becomes less about solving or winning a case and more about revealing the evidence of the heart. 

The audience must ask, Was it wrong for Jack to investigate Susan more than he might investigate other potential employees purely because she was black? After all, he knew that if he ever had to fire her, she could allege discrimination. And does she have other motives for questioning him? It would appear her own prejudices have influenced her words. When someone acts in a way that changes everything for the case, is that person's actions justified? The person seems to believe that the end justifies the means, but what if that person were wrong? Was prejudice ignorant of the facts? And despite the play's ending, was the client guilty?

Each character has a different prejudice, a different point of view on the case, and a different point of view on the other characters of the play. Who's right? What is right and what is wrong? It appears everyone is guilty in the case of prejudice, and only the audience can decide where the truth lies.

Director Irene Lewis, who has a history with plays written about and for African Americans, has done a wonderful job both utilizing the stage, set in the same law office for the entire play, and helping the actors delve deep into their characters. The four person cast does a superb job with the witty dialogue, much of which has been called "language pyrotechnics" (consider yourself warned - the language in the show is unnecessarily excessive and never ceases in vulgarity). 

Chris Butler and Anthony Fusco stand out as lawyers Henry Brown and Jack Lawson, each of which has a strong personality that leads to hilarious remarks throughout the show. The cast plays off each other well, and the dialogue flows organically as each character passes the ball of prejudice and racism. As revelation builds on top of revelation, leading up to an unexpected ending, the actors and the script work together to make the audience think. Indeed, there is not a single moment in RACE that will not have the audience thinking, and the play is certain to leave a lasting impression on all who see it.


RACE by David Mamet

Directed by Irene Lewis

Now through November 13, 2011

Tickets $10-$85

American Conservatory Theatre - San Francisco, California


Photo: Law firm associate Susan (Susan Heyward) and law firm partners Jack Lawson (A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco, left) and Henry Brown (Chris Butler, second from right) prep their wealthy client Charles Strickland (Kevin O'Rourke) for questioning. Photo by Kevin Berne.


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From This Author Harmony Wheeler

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