I still love David Mamet.
“I know there is nothing a white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive,” says Jack, a white lawyer played by Canadian television star Jason Priestley, to his young, black associate Susan, played by the superlatively cool stage star Cara Ricketts, in the Toronto premiere of Mamet’s 2009 play Race.
This is a great line, in so many ways. You can’t really do it justice in print. Only when it is spoken with its Mamettian punctuation – indicating hesitation, and thought, and panic – does it become a miniature poem of political (in)correctness.
There is nothing.
A white person.
Can say to a black person.
Which is not both incorrect and offensive.
On its surface level, this line will appeal to many of Mamet’s fans – largely white, largely male – who feel slightly oppressed in the mildly ridiculous (but not entirely ridiculous) way only white men living in North America can.
But there’s more to it than that, of course. Despite Mamet’s new public persona as a Fox News-style conservative (he declared he was no longer a “brain-dead liberal” in 2008), the playwright still gets subtext.
And so, naturally, this line is Jack’s prelude to saying something – not nothing – about race to a black person. Just as most complaints about the trampling of freedom of speech inevitably come from white men vigorously exercising their freedom of speech.
Then there’s the added level of meaning that comes from the fact that this line is said in a play written by a white person who, literally, puts words in the mouths of black people. This is the nested-box world of theatre, and why it can tackle politics – and particularly the politics of race – in an infinitely more complex and layered way than politicians or pundits can.
There is a plot to Mamet’s Race, not just delicious provocation. Jack and Susan – as well as Jack’s black partner, played by Nigel Shawn Williams in fine form – are working together to defend Charles Strickland, a rich, white man accused of the rape of a black woman. The case has all the elements of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn power-keg, including the testimony of an “illegal” chambermaid. (Apparently, whether an undocumented worker goes to the police or not, her motivations will be questioned.)
Mamet crafts the show to have the appeal of a legal procedural – get me the first responding officer’s report; did the chambermaid find any sequins from the dress? – with the added suspense of which character will betray which. And throughout, Mamet toys and teases with the prejudices of his audience; I know I was surprised and challenged by the ending.
Breaking the cast down along racial lines, the black actors come out on top. Williams delivers Mamet’s lines with all the swagger and attitude they deserve, while Ricketts impresses as one of the playwright’s frightening female ciphers (a more three-dimensional one, incidentally, that those in Oleanna or Speed-the-Plow from back when Mamet was supposedly liberal).
The white actors don’t fare quite as well. Edison is miscast and badly styled by designer Debra Hanson (whose black-and-white set is a stunner) – this is a rich, entitled guy?
As for Priestley – the star of Call Me Fitz and Beverly Hills, 90210, who has not been on a stage in 13 years – his performance is decent, but a little too small for a character who has more than a hint of Kevin O’Leary in him. He has trouble projecting the persona, in short. It’s the kind of competent but unexceptional performance I associate with television and film actors performing on Broadway, the kind that lead me to skip straight plays on visits to New York and wait for them to be presented in Canada.
Daniel Brooks’s direction is fine, but has been shackled by Mamet’s contractual rider, which permits no music or amplification and any “discussion of any type related to the play” until two hours after the end of the show. His silent scene changes seems an ironic comment on this suppression of freedom of speech – as does his undirection of the first scene, which is vigorously static.
Toronto audiences have had the opportunity to see several provocative plays about race in America this season – Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park. Are we too polite to produce any of our own?