In a September 9 article in The New York Times, David Mamet offered a précis of his new play, “Race,” which opened on December 6 at New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theater: “As a Jew, I will relate that there is nothing a non-Jew can say to a Jew on the subject of Jewishness that is not patronizing, upsetting or simply wrong,” he wrote. “I assume that the same holds true among African-Americans.” Or, as the characters in the play repeatedly state, “There’s nothing a white person can say to a black person about race.”
It’s an obvious irony, then, that Mamet, a white Jew, should write and direct a play that deals obsessively with white-black race relations. But for all the claims the characters in the play make about the subject, “Race” itself advances one central idea: Obama or no Obama (and he is not, in fact, ever referenced), we won’t be escaping the tangle of racial-identity politics anytime soon.
The play is set in a handsomely furnished law office, and it celebrates and skewers the legal profession, just as Mamet’s earlier works took on academia (“Oleanna”), Hollywood (“Speed-the-Plow”) and politics (“November”). James Spader stars as Jack Lawson, a charmingly ruthless white lawyer, and David Alan Grier as Henry Brown, a brusque, no-nonsense black lawyer. They are assisted, and undermined, by their young, black, female employee, Susan (Kerry Washington).
As “Race” opens, the partners try to decide whether to take the case of Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas), a famously wealthy white man accused of raping a young black woman. They decide against it: If they win, they will be branded as the firm that got a rapist and “race criminal” off the hook; and if they lose, well, they lose. But their misgivings become moot when Susan requests documents from the district attorney’s office, making Jack and Henry the de facto attorneys of record.
From there, the three lawyers must squeeze themselves through a series of ever more constricting legal and moral wickets. Their client is totally unhelpful, alternating between edgy defensiveness and overwrought remorse for all the wrongs he ever might have committed against African Americans. But, as Jack and Henry reason, “he’s been accused of rape, of which he’s innocent; he hasn’t been accused of being racist,” and in order to prevent him from going to the press or otherwise sabotaging his case, they enthusiastically bully him with a bad cop, bad cop routine, perfectly synchronized by Spader and Grier.
Indeed, despite the specter of the alleged crime and the painful issues that it presents, “Race” is surprisingly funny. In the opportunistic atmosphere of the law office, the issues at stake become deliciously abstract. The most offensive notions can be entertained for their litigious uses, and even played up for laughs. The protected space onstage extends to the protected space of the theater, and touchy subjects can be approached with a conspiratorial sense of understanding. No one, it seems, can possibly be offended.
This seeming invulnerability to racism also allows the play’s characters to expose racist ideas without appearing racist themselves. In one of the more politically incorrect jokes, Jack rejects the possibility of portraying the alleged victim as a home-wrecker — not because it would be a callous assault on an already aggrieved woman, but because in the mind of the jury, “black people are allowed to commit adultery.” Both the characters in the play and the audience recognize Jack’s personal insincerity — this isn’t something that he believes, obviously — and can laugh accordingly. At the same time, the point remains: In the mind of a theoretical white jury member, black people are allowed to commit adultery.
Eventually, however, Jack comes up with a better defense. In her accusation of Strickland, the victim claimed that he threw her on a hotel bed and tore off her red-sequined dress. But in the police report and the testimony of the chambermaid, there were no sequins littering the scene of the crime, something impossible if the dress had been ripped off. To illustrate his point, Jack plans a dramatic, in-court demonstration: Susan will wear an identical dress, which he will tear off, spraying the courtroom with sequins.
Unfortunately, Susan doesn’t think that it’s such a hot idea, and cracks begin to appear in the facade of Jack and Henry’s seemingly harmonious, multihued law firm. Susan demands to know why her employers investigated her so thoroughly before hiring her. Was it because she’s black? While Jack reacts with contrition, Henry has little patience for Susan’s claims of victimization. She’s an employee of the firm, so why shouldn’t she do as she’s told? Because she’s black?
As the ice gets thinner, it becomes clear that neither the law office nor the theater is the protected space we thought it was. In fact, it was hubris to assume otherwise. “You think that you are immune because you understand the problem,” Henry says to Jack, who, until then, had seemed the epitome of plainspoken colorblindness. Once again, we are walking on eggshells. The issue of race, it seems, is as yet inescapable.
The question that remains, however, is why this is so. Is race an ineluctable aspect of human existence? Or do we perpetuate our own problems in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Mamet’s play suggests that both things are true. Early in the play, Jack and Henry declare that a white jury would never acquit their client, lest that jury be guilty of racism, nor would a black jury, lest it commit “race treason.” That latter charge, as trumped up as it sounds, is one that Mamet takes seriously. In his 2006 book “The Wicked Son,” he accused Jews who are critical of Israel of the same crime.
At the same time, the play’s conflict develops not by necessity or inevitability, but because of one character’s choices. This is a familiar trope in Mamet’s work. While on the surface, all parties appear equally culpable, in reality, one is more culpable than the others. Here, while Jack and Henry have their foibles, they are able to put aside politics for the sake of their business and their partnership. Susan, however, cannot stomach the idea of defending the morally, if not criminally, guilty Strickland. It is not race per se that pushes their case over the edge, but a person inflamed by racial politics.
Undoubtedly, Mamet’s ideas have some truth to them, even if the writer does display the unfortunate tendency to mistake a kernel for the entire cob. Indeed, “Race” is often less concerned with the truth of its characters and their situation than it is in offering epigrammatic bits of racial wisdom, such as Jack’s pronouncements that “blacks are fragile” or that “whites will screw blacks every chance they get.” But whatever dubious statements Mamet’s play may offer, in one respect it is devastatingly clear: Though we may congratulate ourselves on our tolerance and understanding, the day has not yet come when we can have our race and leave it, too.
Ezra Glinter is the books editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.
“Race” is playing at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York.
Watch a trailer for “Race” below:
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward.