David Mamet is a playwright that has no problem leaving you feeling uncomfortable. The NiA Company production at the Richard and Debbie Cohn Trustus Side Door Theatre of his play, Race , is no exception. Mamet is known for his dark, fast-paced dialogue and sinister plots. Characters deceive and manipulate each other, all in a struggle for power. They aren’t motivated by a desire to do what’s good or right per se, but by a desire to win.
The setup of Race is simple. Three lawyers are defending a white man for an alleged crime against a black woman. One of the partners is a self-made black man named Henry Brown (played by Darion McCloud). He is juxtaposed by the slick, snarky, and white Jack Lawson (played by Harrison Saunders). And because the issues brought up by sex are just as interesting as race, they are joined by their third partner, Susan (played by Ericka Wright), who happens to be black.
The brutal one upmanship that is so common in a Mamet play is more subtle in Race. There is a level of camaraderie and respect among Brown, Lawson, and Susan (curiously, the only character without a last name). Usually, when watching a Mamet play, I feel disturbed. His characters are usually so shockingly sociopathic that you can’t help but feel squeamish. They seem capable of anything. The characters in Race don’t quite reach this level. This would be fine if his characters were written in such a way that they’re given somewhere to go developmentally, but they aren’t. The language is fast and edgy, with plenty of racial and sexual epithets to keep the audience on its toes – but none of the character’s actions seem all that surprising, and this makes establishing suspense difficult.
Race feels like an exercise in how our prejudices affect our perception of reality. Was Susan offered her position because she was a woman and black? Does Lawson truly believe is client is innocent? Is Brown afraid to voice his own doubts about the innocence of his client out of fear of seeming racially biased himself? Are any of these people self-aware enough to be concerned about any of these things?
As I said, this is a difficult script, and in my opinion not necessarily Mamet’s best. Director Heather McCue could have gone with a much easier play, but this is not what the NiA Company is about. They seek to challenge their audience and themselves, which is commendable. This puts a great deal of pressure on the actors. They were all very good, but the text they’re working with doesn’t do them any favors. McCloud is the most explorative actor in this show as Henry Brown, who is both believable and compelling. Saunders is quick and cunning as Lawson, but there are moments where he perhaps could have made the choice to give his character moments of weakness that would have made Race much more suspenseful. The same can be said of Wright’s Susan. As she never seems to reach a point where she’s in serious danger of losing anything, whether emotionally or professionally, I found it difficult to feel much suspense or surprise at her actions. Nathan Dawson plays Charles Strickland, a rich and arrogant man who may or may not be a rapist. Dawson, an Australian, opted for an American accent for this show, although not altogether successfully. Nevertheless, I commend him for offering moments of vulnerability that left me feeling uncomfortably sympathetic for his character.
The small black box space of the Side Door is completely ideal for this type of small production that takes on some very large issues. Race is a timely and relevant work that if nothing else, will encourage a lively discussion between you and your friends after the show.
~ Jillian Owens
Race runs for four more performances, April 16-19. The doors and box office open thirty minutes prior to curtain, and all Trustus Side Door tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for students. Reservations can be made by calling the Trustus Box Office at (803) 254-9732, and tickets may be purchased online at www.trustus.org . The Richard and Debbie Cohn Trustus Side Door Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady Street and on Pulaski Street. The Trustus Side Door Theatre entrance is through the glass doors on the Huger St. side of the building. For more information or reservations call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 pm at 803-254-9732. Visit www.trustus.org for all show information and season info.