David Mamet Addresses “Race” in New Play

Just a brief note that David Mamet has a new play on Broadway that deals with race and racism, called cleverly enough, “Race.”  Here’s a brief bit from Ben Brantley’s review in the NYTimes this morning:

“[Lead characters] Jack and Henry’s initial interview of their prospective client allows them to deliver knowing epigrams about the amorality of the legal profession and the parasitic nature of the news media. More important, the encounter lets Mr. Mamet dissect the layers of perception that come into play any time white versus black (and man versus woman, and have versus have-not) is the center of a sensational trial. The race of each character informs these perceptions as well, though not always how you would expect.   “You want to tell me about black folks?” says Henry, baiting the distressed but indignant Charles as the play begins. There follows a list of the stereotypes that dare not speak their name when it comes to the contemplation of African-Americans by their Caucasian counterparts, and Mr. Mamet runs with increasingly elaborate riffs on that theme.”

Why a play about race from arguably one of America’s most notable playwrights at a time when we are living through a supposedly post-racial era?  Mamet answers this question in his piece, “We Can’t Stop Talking about Race in Amerca,” for the NYTimes back in September, saying:

“President Obama, like his predecessor President Bill Clinton, has suggested that this country engage in a dialogue about race.  But what has our 230-year national experience been but a dialogue about race? … My current play, “Race,” is intended to be an addition to that dialogue. 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. I assume that the same holds true among African-Americans. In my play a firm made up of three lawyers, two black and one white, is offered the chance to defend a white man charged with a crime against a black young woman. It is a play about lies.  All drama is about lies. When the lie is exposed, the play is over.

Race, like sex, is a subject on which it is near impossible to tell the truth. In each, desire, self-interest and self-image make the truth inconvenient to share not only with strangers (who may, legitimately or not, be viewed as opponents) but also with members of one’s own group, and, indeed, with oneself.

For just as personal advantage was derived by whites from the defense of slavery and its continuation as Jim Crow and segregation, so too personal advantage, political advantage and indeed expression of deeply held belief may lead nonwhites to defense of positions that, though they may be momentarily acceptable, will eventually be revealed as untenable.”

I haven’t seen the play yet, but I’m intrigued that this one barometer suggests that race is as salient a topic of discussion in the U.S. as it ever has been.

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