Theatre

Race Gets Under Your Skin

David Mamet's legal drama Race, starring Jason Priestley, is challenging and uneven, but makes its case.

There's black, white, and a lot of grey area in David Mamet's Race at Canadian Stage. Photo by David Hou.

  • Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front Street East)
    • Tuesday, April 16–Sunday, May 5
  • $24 to $99

Performance dates

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There are few playwrights whose names can double as adjectives (think “Shakespearean,” or “Beckettian”). But Race, now on at Canadian Stage, makes us want to coin a new one of those words. That’s because of the opening scene, where a black lawyer named Henry Brown addresses a white man with the line “You want to tell me about Black folks?” while leaning back in his office chair at the end of a long boardroom table. It’s distinctly Mamettian.

The American playwright David Mamet is known as much for his portrayal of fast-talking, morally ambiguous businessmen as he is for “Mamet speak,” his unique style of verbose, curse-filled, overlapping dialogue or long-winded speeches. His 2010 script Race is no different—in fact, it might be his most Mamettian to date. It certainly doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to its subject matter (as the title suggests). Discourse surrounding race, privilege, language, and cultural history consumes the entire play.

While it may be Mamet’s most Mamettian play, though, Race is not his best. Character and plot development are virtually ignored in favour of ideological arguments. But the language is captivating enough to make for a thrilling 90 minutes.

Henry Brown (Nigel Shawn Williams) and Jack Lawson (Jason Priestley, aka Brandon Walsh from 90210 fame) are partners in a successful law firm meeting with a potential client: the very rich, very white Charles Strickland (Matthew Edison), who is accused of raping a young black woman. Susan (Cara Ricketts), a junior attorney with the firm, remains silent during most of the first scene, but she soon plays an integral part in a) the firm’s decision to accept Strickland’s case, even though it’s a lose-lose situation, and b) crafting Strickland’s defense.

Some major holes appear in the script as Jack, Henry, and Susan butt heads and attempt to manage their emotional client. First, there’s a defense that’s astoundingly weak from the start, and then there are characters that are not only flawed in personality but flawed in construction, functioning more as mouthpieces for Mamet’s ideas than as well-rounded human beings. Unfortunately, this hampers Priestley’s triumphant return to the stage. Though Jack has the biggest character arc by far, Priestley doesn’t have the fire or the charisma to pull it off (no matter how good he looks in a suit). Edison fares better, but he’s cast too far above his age. As a result, he comes off like a kid playing dress up and whining about not getting his way (which, granted, may have been the point). Ricketts, meanwhile, is able to give one of Mamet’s quintessentially devious female characters some backbone. But Nigel Shawn Williams is untouchable as Hank, the only one who doesn’t seem to have anything to hide. He takes to “Mamet speak” like a jury to a tearful witness, and is possibly the biggest reason to head over to the Bluma Appel Theatre.

Daniel Brooks’s direction keeps the action as tense as possible, considering the fact that it plays out like a weak legal procedural. A beautiful stage by Debra Hanson plays up the oppressive, foreboding nature of the colour black. Like the entire script, the set design deals in blacks and whites. Only the male characters’ suits are grey.

Mamet doesn’t attempt to answer any of the questions he puts forth in Race. As in his previous plays, Oleanna and Speed-the-Plow, he leaves it up to the audience to decide whose corner to stand in. Something tells us that Canadian audiences will be more perplexed by Mamet’s view on racial tensions than enraged by one side or the other, but the brazen, bold voice that comes through is mesmerizing.

CORRECTION: April 16, 2013, 2:20 PM This post originally incorrectly referred to Nigel Shawn Williams’ character as “Frank.” In fact, the character’s nickname is Hank.

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