As frustrated as I can be with some of David Mamet’s work, I remain doggedly convinced that he is one of the finest playwrights of the modern age. It is, I think, a glorious thing to experience anything he has written: he has the ability to cut through the great chafe of life and, in prose that is lean but never anorexic, reveal wisdom in all areas: art, lust, guns, even campaign buttons. Oh and race. Let’s not forget that.
Mamet’s 2006 book The Wicked Son dealt with anti-Semitism and self hatred among the Jews; not content with this controversy, he returned to Broadway in 2009 with Race, a play that tackles the great racial divide that has haunted America ever since Thomas Jefferson was forced to remove references to slaves from the Declaration of Independence (it’s true, look it up).
... three attorneys, two black and one white, debate whether to defend a white man charged with raping a black woman.
Race is finally getting its Canadian premiere thanks to Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre and if you’ve always been on the fence about David Mamet, this play will probably be the one that sends you to one side or the other. Even the synopsis doesn’t pull any punches: three attorneys, two black and one white, debate whether to defend a white man charged with raping a black woman. The heated premise forces all the characters to expose the unresolved racial and sexual issues at the heart of our culture.
“The play covers so many Taboo topics,” said my friend Tristan D. Lalla, who's appearing in the production. “They're all incredibly poignant and relevant to the world we all co-exist in today.”
I was eager to talk to Tristan about Race, both because he’s a sharp Montreal actor and an outspoken social activist. Back in August, 2011, Tristan made headlines after he accused bouncers at Montreal’s Saint Sulpice of racial discrimination - he and friends were denied admittance because they were in “le style hip-hop”. Not surprisingly, he remarked that Mamet's views on racism “are eye opening, yes, but for me, they aren't new.”
Although Race is set in contemporary America, Tristan knows firsthand that its themes are far too relevant for Canadians. Many people, according to him, believe we’ve entered a golden age of equality. His director (Heather Ingalls) was even asked why Catalyst Theatre was producing Race, given that there was according to the questioner, no race problem in Canada. “That's why we're doing this play,” Tristan told me via email. “Unfortunately, many people somehow have convinced themselves that that is true... that we live in some kind of Magical ‘Post-Obama’ time.”
Mamet has given the entertainment world a pantheon of modern classics.
Race opened to mixed reviews in 2009 with critics divided between the show’s subject and its style. All agreed it represented a general return-to-form for Mamet, who had been focusing on adaptations (Faustus, The Voysey Inheritance) and madcap comedy (November, Romance). But critics were equally unhappy with the story itself, calling it “hollow” (Variety), “clunky” (New York Post) and “lacking in dramatic tension” (New York Times.).
Their disappointment was palpable. In addition to the Pulitzer-prize winning Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet’s work in film, TV and stage has created a pantheon of modern classics: American Buffalo (stage), The Untouchables (film), The Unit (TV). But with his run of adaptations and farces, Mamet has long threatened to become a caricature of himself, especially in his recent films (I’d argue he’s been remaking his 1997 film The Spanish Prisoner for years.)
So it’s easy to understand why people were itching for a new Mamet they can champion; and equally easy to see why they were disappointed. It’s unfair to judge any artist’s work to others in the oeuvre, but this doesn’t stop people from doing it. The danger of being prolific and popular is that you’re your own worst enemy. Put another way, Race is not Glengarry Glen Ross - but everyone wants it to be.
Viewed as its own animal, Race remains a provocative exploration of a subject most playwrights (and theatre companies) are loathe to explore. Whether or not you agree with its depiction of race in the western world, it should spark the sort of uneasy conversation that needs to be had. Aside from its risky topic, Race also contains all the hallmarks of the classic David Mamet play. Language has long been a prison in Mamet’s work and Race’s characters stumble into more than one verbal cell. There’s the traditional manipulation, the corkscrew plot, the trademark dialogue known to the theatre world as “Mamet-speak’.
Given its topic, the staging of Race will probably always be something of a political act, but this should not be taken to mean the play is not inherently theatrical. “[Race] leaves you uneasy, wanting, and curious,” said Tristan. “It leaves you questioning what you just heard, what You Believe, who you trust... It leaves you Talking- which is what good theatre should do.”
Race by David Mamet runs from February 24 – March 11, 2012 at Catalyst Theatre in Edmonton. For tickets call 780.420.1757 or visit www.catalysttheatre.ca.