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Joyce Owens reviews “Race” at the Goodman Theatre

Joyce Owens

Jack Lawson (Marc Grapey) is nonplussed by the emerging details of Charles Strickland’s case in the Chicago premiere of Race

Even though being black in America is still no joke, David Mamet’s play, “Race” in the hands of director Chuck Smith at the Goodman Theater, makes us laugh despite the pain. This is a patently American plot about a uniquely made in America sin that just won’t go away.

I anticipated seeing the play because I am interested in race and address the subject in my own work, and I am a black woman who has, so far, survived racism in America. Living with issues around race all my life made me curious if the play could uncover something I did not know. As a portrait of race it illustrates that even though all faces have the same parts, each is ultimately unique and one-of-a-kind. Mamet’s play is his distinctive take on a subject that has been examined over and over again since slavery began.

Black people have laughed (to keep from crying) about race for a long time. Comedians such as Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy make a good living helping us feel that we are not alone.  African Americans are only 12% of the national population therefore it’s clear the success of these comedians came from the support of a wider audience. So even though I wondered who laughed at what funny, ironic, satirical lines during the performance, I had to believe white people were getting the joke, too. The play may not be about progress, but I just have to hope that thinking the same things are funny means something.

Henry Brown (Geoffrey Owens) phones for more information on his potential client in the Chicago premiere of Race

The audience’s reactions gave me hope, although the play dashed my optimism a bit because if so many people got the message, the institution of racism must still be obvious.  I was also reminded that racial bias is a two-way street. And on top of that, that race isn’t our only issue. In 2012 some of us can laugh together side-by-side in the same room at the same jokes about race, but we still have to confront the reality that class, economics, status and power separate us, too.

The spare cast of four actors: Patrick Clear, Marc Grapey, Geoffrey Owens and Tamberla Perry, includes one woman and three males; three are lawyers and one is a potential client. The lone woman has a peculiar role. She is an underling who takes to controlling the events. She caught my attention, first for what she did not do, and later keeps it because of what she does, signaling her independent streak or her foolishness.  In a cast of two African American actors and two white actors we see an amazing diversity. No one exactly fits the stereotypes perfectly.

The fact that Mamet called the play “Race” indicates he does not feel he has to skirt the issue. For example Henry Brown played by Geoffrey Owens (no relation) says, “White people can’t say anything about race to a black person” a sentiment that black people might exchange between themselves. “Race” addresses sex, in a manner of speaking, too. The white wealthy client is searching for representation because he has been charged with raping a black woman. I assume referencing an act that white men did not believe was criminal when they raped the slaves they owned because the slaves were their property was the angle here.

Susan (Tamberla Perry) formulates her opinion on the case of Charles Strickland in the Chicago premiere of Race

Mamet’s dialog is direct, of course. That’s one of his trademarks. “It’s not pretty, but it’s real” was a TV station’s slogan that applies to this play, except the play could be described as closer to raw! It’s definitely for mature audiences who can handle hearing fuck, bitch and nigger, periodically.

Equal rights on paper came in 1964, forty-four years later in 2008 we elected an African American as our 44th president. Under the post-black delusion that President Obama’s historic first stirred up, we believed the dying embers of bias would finally burn out. Instead, racism still persists, so sadly the play, one worth seeing, is still relevant.

Jack Lawson (Marc Grapey) and Henry Brown (Geoffrey Owens) half-heartedly listen to their client Charles Strickland’s (Patrick Clear) pleas in the Chicago premiere of Race

The actors kept me glued to the back and forth banter, the audience playing their part, laughing, groaning and quietly gasping in seeming unison, reacting to the dialog. Eventually I wondered whether feminism was a subplot. Having to face women’s issues and race, Black women have had to manage their allegiance to the “white man” who she’s been taught always knows best, or the black man, who she has too often been told is inferior. Susan acted by Tamberla Perry reflects that dilemma.

When the black lawyer was asked what a white man could say to him about race he said something like this: “You can say nothing to a Black man about race.” But Mamet with Chuck Smith tells us you can!