Here's a loaded premise: A rich white man is accused of raping a poor black woman. What more focused lens than this, asks playwright David Mamet, to shine a light on the hypocrisies and prejudices of our country's attitudes toward race? (And let's not forget gender, though the play's title does.) Theater is exactly the right medium for the excoriating conversation this show wants to have, even if Mamet isn't quite the right playwright—the pressure-cooker confines of a stage offers no escape for either the audience or the characters.
Charles (Jim Iorio) can afford any lawyer in town—so when he shows up at the office of Jack (Todd Van Voris) and Henry (Reginald André Jackson), they assume he's there because Henry is black, and he thinks it might help him to have a black lawyer.
That self-serving maneuver is merely one way race is used as a weapon and provocation in Mamet's 2009 play, which made its Pacific Northwest debut at Artists' Rep this month.
As the partners toss around ideas for Charles' defense, their initial certainty of his guilt begins to wane—though Jack's sharp young protégé, Susan (Ayanna Berkshire), is less convinced. As more evidence in the case materializes, the racial dynamics at play challenge these three characters to open up about their own attitudes towards race.
The most powerful moments here are provided by Todd Van Voris as a bluff, seemingly implacable cynic who acknowledges his own racial biases as just another point on the spectrum of ways in which human beings are fucked up. When the tables are turned on some of his assumptions, his red-faced confusion is almost painful to witness.
The problem with Race is not that I don't trust the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mamet to guide me through this labyrinth of racial and sexual prejudice; it's that I don't trust him to assemble it in the first place. The play's only fully developed character is a white man, and that's a real problem in a show ostensibly about how white people and black people feel about each other. Where Mamet really becomes suspect is with the character of Susan: Her intentions are at best troublingly murky, at worst hollow and out of touch.
Within the world created in Race, characters lay bare their most troubling secrets, and tension is masterfully ratcheted over incredibly high stakes. The problem, though, is that Race's world just doesn't have quite as much to do with the real world as it thinks it does.