REVIEW: David Mamet lays waste to liberal white guilt in Race

Race does matter – and it always will.

Hence the title of David Mamet’s controversial legal drama, which makes its Canadian premiere in a Theatre Yes production at the Catalyst Theatre through March 11. Right off the top of “Race,” black lawyer Henry Brown asks and answers the question, “Does the black man hate white people? You bet your ass he does!”

Charles Strickland (Roman Pfob) is a poor rich white man accused of raping a black woman. Brown (Tristan D. Lalla) and his white partner Jack Lawson (Michael Peng) at first are reluctant to take the case for a myriad of reasons, mostly because they don’t think they can win the case, regardless of whether they think he’s guilty or not. But because of legal protocols and a clerical error by their associate Susan (Beryl Bain), they are obliged to take the case.

Mamet is rarely – if ever – pretty. In a play riddled with F- and C-bombs, the first thing the playwright does is lay waste to the liberal white guilt notion that only white people are capable of racism, and good for him. Anything to acknowledge our equality, I say.

If you loved Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning magnum opus Glengarry Glen Ross, there is no reason why you wouldn’t love this play as well. Race, too, holds a rich vein of cynicism. There are many motivations and agendas – but the betterment of mankind won’t be one of them. Characters are evasive with stating those motivations and answering questions, part of why the road to the point of the play is fraught with pot holes and lazy work crews sent out to fix them.

It is oft said that the best direction is that which is invisible. If this is so, then Heather Inglis has worked hard to earn this compliment. She stands back and lets the kitchen-sink realism that this play cries out for do its job.

The acting is top notch, with Bain’s mannered diction being the only seam, but she too falls quickly in line, and becomes as naturalistic as the rest. And while Peng brings a richness to the pragmatic Lawson – who struggles to keep the case from ruining his firm – Lalla’s commanding presence is missed while he waits in the wings for his next cue.

The realism is enhanced beautifully by Brain Bast, whose fully functional set design (real trash in the trashcans) is the one of the most ambitious seen in the Catalyst; with lighting by Adam Turnbull the kind that designers hate: Function over flash. Only a few warm gels are used and that’s it. It’s worth pointing the fine work of the designers in this case, the sort of thing that often gets overlooked come Sterling time.

To say Race is “provocative” is to understate its impact.