Race‘Race’ by David Mamet at Hampstead Theatre

13th June, 2013

Do you know what you can say to a black man on the subject of race?’


The added nuance that comes from these lines is that they are written by a white American writer who, literally, puts words in the mouths of black people.  Within this context, we do have to remember that American life and public discourse in the United States is very formal, albeit anodyne, and not just on the issue of race. Even on network television, you are not even allowed to use the word like ‘bloody’ and follow up questions are rare.  Race is just a taboo subject. As Mamet proclaims: Race, like sex, is a subject on which it is near impossible to tell the truth. We need also to be mindful that the play hit Broadway in 2009 when the country boasted a newly-elected African-American president – a period in its history that could dare to call itself post-racial. David Mamet’s Race slams on the brakes just in time before any sense of being self-congratulatory kicks in.

Over fifty years ago in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ a black man accused of raping a white woman is necessarily found guilty by virtue of the colour of his skin.  Rules are reversed in ‘Race ‘ which begins as a crime mystery, when two high-profile lawyers, Henry Brown(Clarke Peters) who is black, and the white Jack Lawson (Jasper Britton) debate whether to defend a wealthy, white, racist client, Charles Strickland(Charles Daish) who is charged with the rape of a black woman.  Strickland admits that he was intimate with his accuser but claims it wasn’t rape, insisting that the sex was consensual. As one of the characters remarks, it is an almost impossible case for the defence to win. Underpinning this is a barbed jibe at  the exoneration of O.J. Simpson, despite forensic evidence linking him to a crime —an early indicator of the mid-nineties mind-set that informs the play. On the fringe emerges an attack from a young, black, female lawyer, Susan (Nina Tousaint-White)who highlights further how lawyers navigate the unspoken value systems of the jury.

David Mamet has a reputation of not doing anything by half-measures.  He creates a pugilistic drama not so much by questioning the morality of racial profiling, but rather by questioning its usefulness.  Each of the principal characters is depicted as using ethnic stereotypes as guideposts for his or her actions.  Susan is convinced of Strickland’s guilt because of his whiteness; Henry Brown is convinced that Strickland is a racist; and Jack Lawson has a habit of summing people up in a hurry based on demographics. What is clear is that race continues to define and constrain us. As Jack lectures Susan, ‘Race is the most incendiary topic in our history. And the moment it comes out, you cannot close the lid on that box. That may change. But not for a long, long while.’

The plot further revolves around the all-important red-sequined dress that the accused ripped off during the alleged attack. Clarke Peters (famed by his performances in ‘Five Guys Named Moe’ and more recently ‘The Wire’) is electric but all the acting is robust. True the characters lack emotional depth, but the point is not is-he-or-isn’t-he-guilty.

In order to propel us through the drama, humour is relentless. There are some priceless lines: ‘Sex is terrible apart from the two people who are doing it’ In tandem, there is a kind of complicity between the audience and the actors – we laugh, but, strangely, the script does not shock, for we engage with the cynicism of the legal world.

Thus, Mamet makes it clear, however, that prejudice exists in everybody and its denial is a false one. We can’t just have that liberal notion that we can overcome it. We need to acknowledge it and find a way to deal with it. Any play that contains the words “f…k,” “nigger” and “bitch” in one sentence is clearly out to challenge cultural touchstones and decimate liberal pieties.

Yes, Americans are as gripped by race as we in Britain are by class; though the play is staged at a time when ‘tolerant’ Britain headlines the decapitation of a young white soldier. Thankfully, the aftermath saw few, if any, reprisals against British-born Nigerians. Sadly, as almost always tends to be the case with my theatrical visits, there was an abysmal dearth of faces of colour in the audience.  So the laughter at Mamet’s strident word play only falls on the ears of a majority white audience. Great theatre should not be the sole preserve of any one race or class. Aside, it also highlights in a microcosm the underlying problem here in Britain: the painfully small numbers of black British middle class.

Though there are no moralizing or pat answers, it’s worth thinking about the play in Mamet’s own words in a 2008 Village Voice article: I do not think that people are basically good at heart. Indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.’

On the one hand,as often in reality, we , the audience remain passive in processing the painful liberal prevarications about race and gender relations.  On the other hand, the beauty of this production is that we leave to keep the navigation of this debate going.

‘Race’ is such an exhilarating play, which is so well crafted by Mamet with 85 minutes tightly directed by Terry Johnson .   However, should we be concerned, disconcerted and disappointed to learn that Mamet has turned right wing by being a great advocate for Sarah Palin?