Just over a week ago, I saw a matinee performance of “Race” by David Mamet at A.C.T. The production was directed by Irene Lewis. Scenery is by Chris Barreca, Costumes by Candice Donnelly, Lighting by Rui Rita, Sound by Cliff Caruthers.
Usually when I return from a show, I’m very eager to discuss the physical production… it is after all my passion. However, much to my surprise, with “Race” I really want to discuss the play itself. As this is my “Sets and Lights,” blog, I’m going talk about the design first, and then…. I’ll discuss the play.
Chris Barreca’s set of an ultra modern law office, with (according to the program) 370 linear feet of real law books and glass partisans set the tone marvelously. I had some doubts in the audience that the lawyers at the center of the story would have quite such a rude conversation about their (potential) client when the only thing between them was a glass wall. Candice Donnelly’s costumes impressed me in the first scene, and then I failed to notice them again — which is probably speaks well for the designer behaving with constant appropriateness. Rui Rita’s lighting, was for the most part excellent. The transitions between the scenes, struck me as a rather odd place between “enough lights for the actors to move their props around and find their new spot” and “lets do a pantomime scene to show that time has passed.” As much as I would like to blame the Rita’s design, I suspect it was much more of a director and designer collaborative idea that just didn’t quite gel. (I should note that the implied window for the night scene from stage right was an absolutely gourgious effect.) Cliff Caruthers sound design had only one minor flaw, and that had to do with my position in the theatre which always put the cell phone rings placed, not quite right — I imagine if I wasn’t in the really really cheap seats it would have been great.
Now, to talk about the play. I should begin by admitting, I have not in the passed liked Mamet’s writing. I lit his play Oleana several times — and didn’t enjoy it. I have seen a number of his plays, and read still more — and in general don’t like them. In general, I find Mamet’s characters arch, and unsympathetic, and I find his plots rather convient. I did not have high hopes going into Race, which I had acquired tickets to because it was part of a season which otherwise looked really good.
Race may end up being the high point of the A.C.T. season. The cast ( Chris Butler, Anthony Fusco, Susan Heyward, Kevin O’Rourke) were fantastically cast, and created believable characters that spat out typically Mamet-esque dialogue. Irene Lewis’s staging and direction was outstanding. BUT Mamet was the star of the show.
Mamet’s play centers around the concept of privilege. This concept has been on my mind a lot, and Mamet deals with it with aplomb. Privilege is the concept that due to certain unchangeable things, one person is treated differently than another in the same situation. Privilege can be afforded to one on the basis of race, gender, class, economic status, sexuality etc. The other important factor in privilege, is that, in general, the perks one gets from it are not appreciated by the privileged. For example, I am probably treated better in retail establishments due to the fact that am white, male, and usually dress in a way that indicates I am of a middle to higher economic status. Alternatively, I am keenly aware of the concept of straight privilege, which I do not get to participate in.
Mamet doesn’t spend the play preaching about privilege, one way or another. His characters preach at each other about privilege, although none of them can agree on what privilege exists and what are merely imagined. Mamet also doesn’t provide answers, only questions. The play concerns a rich white man accused of raping a poor black woman, and the rich white man fires his white lawyers and instead (because he thinks it will look betters), engages a more ethnically diverse law firm.
Mamet takes this premise and uses it to explore privilege and prejudice. Some in the law firm assume the rich white man is guilty because he is rich, and white, and older while some assume the poor woman is falsely accusing the man in the hopes of a big settlement. Mamet smartly structures each scene with a stunning reveal about the situation, while never actually telling the audience what really happened. Normally, I object to a play that doesn’t tie up all the ends neatly into a clear statement at the end. But Mamet’s point in this play particularly is that what really matters is the perception people have about who did what — who has power — who doesn’t have power — and what (if anything) se can do about it.
There are no easy answers when it comes to privilege and prejudice, and I thank Mamet for not trying to answer anything. Instead his play created a framework (not the only framework) — a starting point for an intelligent conversation about what the topic.