“Race” at the Human Race Loft Theatre
If you can leave the Human Race Loft Theatre with your assumptions and your vanities intact, you may be in denial. David Mamet’s “Race” is a boldly confrontational face-off between racial thinking, some stereotypical, some situational and some totally inaccurate.
Four actors, evenly divided racially, bring alive this law office story with conviction and a physical energy that holds an audience for 90 minutes of emotion, hacked out of the most basic human drives: shame, guilt, self-delusion, greed. The law partners are Henry Brown (played by Alan Bomar Jones) and Jack Lawson (played by Richard B. Watson). The recently hired young lawyer, Susan, is played Julia Pace Mitchell. The man who wants to be their client is Charles Strickland, played by Bruce Cromer.
The play is full of plot twists and questions: Strickland is accused of raping a young minority woman in a hotel room. Did he? He wants Brown and Lawson to represent him. Will they? The partners trust the talent and knowledge and ethics of the new hire. Should they? The proposed client has no bias and is innocent of the charge. Of course.
Mamet hurls harsh words, words seldom spoken: “Do you think all black people are stupid?” “I think all people are stupid …” and the dialogue blazes on. A bit of the script quoted, as written in the program: “I. Know. There is nothing. A white person. Can say to black person. About Race. Which is not both incorrect and offensive. Nothing. I know that.” The play minces no words or attitudes, and the cast owns it.
Yet, there are subtle moments to balance those in which no holds are barred. Alan Bomar Jones does sly, furious and cynical as Henry Brown. Then he may react to others without words in an equally emotionally effective move and look. He makes more of the role than Mamet.
Bruce Cromer, in a seldom seen, unlikable character role, carries himself quite convincingly as a man who expects his mantle of privilege that comes with high income to be above doubt. His moment of insight at the end is portrayed tentatively, a man testing the unknown. It seems a somewhat thankless role for his talents.
It was a moment of fine acting when Mitchell’s face reflected silently that she had figured out a scenario, internally acknowledging the progression of a small plot, registering discovery, then satisfaction. This play is full of such moments. Ms. Mitchell is pregnant, which stretches the credibility of one of the plot points, but in no way diminished her believable character development.
Watson, whose character Jack Lawson never leaves the stage, carries the most dialogue and the heaviest burden of the play, in more than one way. He only joined the cast on Tuesday of opening week; because Human Race resident artist Michael Lippert had to bow out due to illness on Sunday, another professional had to be found quickly and brought to Dayton. Watson played the role about a year ago, but some of the dialogue had faded over time, as he performed other heavy parts. It has been a race of a different sort for him with the cast and director, getting up to speed: blocking, becoming an ensemble, having costume fitted, retrieving half-forgotten lines, having photographs done, overcoming travel exhaustion. By opening night Friday, Watson seemed to have done it.
More than that, the actor has vested the character with energy and an appropriately greedy, cagy, conniving intelligence. His wiry frame quivers with purpose and alternately slumps when confronting his own racial assumptions.
The rest of the cast has been generously supportive, according to Director Richard E. Hess. Jones noted how much he liked Hess’s direction, encouraging the lawyers to be more in tune with each other.
Hess said he had learned a lot from trusting his actors to find and build the drive of each character. “I trust the actors,” he said. “They worked through their own issues during rehearsals and brought the reality, but left unanswered those questions we must each answer on our own. They taught me I’m white, I’m racist.”
Lest you think there is a ripped from the headlines similarity between the basic plot and the recent Strauss-Kahn/ New York hotel chambermaid news, it could not be. Mamet wrote this play previously and it was produced in 2009. The Strauss-Kahn accusation was in 2011.
Your conclusions, if you can come to any about who did what and why, and more significantly if your attitudes and perspectives about race have been altered, may depend on your culture and your race. Certainly, this work and people you’ll meet at the Human Race provide a valuable opportunity for discussion. However, there will be no “While We’re on the Subject Open Forum” discussion, usually held after the second Sunday performance, as Mamet does not permit after show talks.
No matter your ethnic heritage, this is a play that will make you react, one way or another: agree-disagree; like-dislike; thinking-feeling-squirming. In any case, it may be wise to avoid red sequin dresses.
The Human Race Theatre Presents “Race” Tuesday, April 9 through Sunday, April 14 and Wednesday, April 17 through Sunday, April 21. Prior to Thursday, April 11, there will be an “Inside Track” discussion at 7:15 p.m. For more information, call Ticket Central Stage at 937.228.3630, the Human Race Theatre at 937.461.3823 or visit humanracetheatre.org.
Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.