Why we can’t talk about “Race”

Avi Small, Writer

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Northwestern’s Theatre and Interpretation Center put on a staged reading of “Race.” Written in 2009 by Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet, “Race” discusses issues of race, class and sex and embraces the controversy that comes with the territory. The play centers on two partners at a law firm, one black and one white (played in this production by Communication students Pernell Myers and Alex Jacobs), who struggle with the moral implications of taking on a tough potential client: a wealthy white man accused of raping a black woman. Their new administrative assistant complicates the situation as she works with the partners, with questionable motives. Taking a critical look at contemporary racial politics, “Race” presents a bleak outlook on the current state of diversity in America.

Now, I reviewed “Race” for The Current last year, when it was performed at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. At the Goodman, “Race” was explosive: Seasoned actors slung well-rehearsed quips across the stage with theatrical flair. It was easy to get caught up in the excitement of the production and gloss over the meaning the playwright was intending to convey. Mamet’s famously sharp dialogue was on display, and the actors played it up for full comedic and dramatic effect.

The staged reading at Northwestern was a very different production. Performed on a barely ornamented stage with actors reading their scripts out of binders, this spare production forced Mamet’s script, rather than the capable actors, to be the star. As a special Martin Luther King Jr. Day production, this was fitting; rather than simply performing a play that uses race as a starting point, the NU reading could feature Mamet’s script and spur a dialogue on this controversial issue.

Given its part of the MLK Day holiday commemoration on campus, I was hoping to be more impressed with what “Race” had to say about race. Yet, I found Mamet’s play to be lacking. His thesis seemed to be that “everyone’s a little bit racist” (a subject tackled with humor and greater insight in “Avenue Q”) and nothing more. Each of the characters exposes his or her biases as the show progresses, but the audience is left with only that. To Mamet, the politically correct nature of our times means there is just no way anyone can talk about race without being offensive. The pervasive negativity of “Race” was disconcerting given its timing: MLK Day and a presidential inauguration. Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. and President Obama can help us appreciate how far our country has progressed in its racial attitudes; “Race” reminds us how far we still have to go.