“Do you know what you can say to a black man on the question of race?” African-American lawyer Henry Brown (Jamal Gibran Sterling) asks his client (Cameron Cobb). “Nothing,” the (white) client replies. “Absolutely correct.” And yet, that’s exactly what (white) playwright David Mamet takes on in his play Race, getting its local premiere from Kitchen Dog. The billionaire client has hired Brown — and his white law partner, Jack Lawson (Hax Hartman), — to defend him from charges he raped a black woman in his hotel room (shades of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case in 2011). Did the client do it? And even if he did, should the partners and their young, black, female associate Susan (Jaquai Wade) step into the murk of defending him?
It’s been about five years since Mamet became bat-shit crazy, rejecting his prior existence as a “brain-dead liberal” with a hard swing to the right, but truth be told, he’s always been a strange apple in the fruit cart. Always fighting claims of misogyny, his provocative play Oleanna all but made out all women to be shrill defenders of victimhood at the cost of male dignity. I pretty much expected Race to do the same, but the fact is, the play has lost its ability to shock — not because Mamet isn’t poking the hornet’s nest, but because what he’s invented for the dramatic stage can’t compete with what’s really going on in today’s politics. When op-ed writers like Richard Cohen gamely take to the pages of The Washington Post to declare that interracial relationships and multicultural families churn the stomachs of people with “conventional views.” If that’s what so-called “intellectuals of the right” think on the issue of race, we’re all doomed. It’s not that Mamet’s right; it’s that he hasn’t gone far enough.
And still, he’s gone too far. Mamet reaches into a tattered bag of dramaturgical tricks to sell his point, from making an obscure college thesis readily handy to constructing darkly cynical scenarios for his characters to follow with more attention to the writer’s own agenda than to the characters’ reality. But despite it’s flaws, this production of Race is actually a dandy little exercise in closed-door proselytizing. The tight cast is outstanding, the pacing brisk, the tone thoughtful and brash without being stentorian. It may not change any minds, but it may get some working that haven’t lately. Maybe Richard Cohen should see it.
— Arnold Wayne Jones
The MAC, 3120 McKinney Ave. Through Dec. 15. KitchenDogTheater.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 22, 2013.