Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: (Toronto) RACE

Jason Priestley (photo by David Hou)
Pacing to the end
RACE is whip-fast look at what divides us…
by Dave Ross

This is Canadian Stage’s 25th Anniversary season, and as it draws to a close, they are doing so with a nod to their original season, offering David Mamet’s RACE, just as they offered Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross all those years ago. But this play is more than just a nod towards their inaugural season. It is a fast, sharp, and unpleasant exploration of race in America. 

Mamet’s script is painful in its acidity, and in the reality of the dialogue. The almost complete exclusion of contractions from the script reminds the audience that this is theatre, a manufactured event, but the situation is not. A wealthy white man is accused of raping a young black woman, and he seeks representation from a firm in town willing to take his case. The firm has two high-powered attorneys, one white, and one black. This is the centre of the story, but the script uses dialogue to explore and expose race. What it reveals is uncomfortable in its authenticity. 

I’m thrilled to say that this is not an incident of stunt casting

Race is a social construction, which makes it complicated to discuss. We can only approach race from our own social and economic positions, but we are also influenced by our own race, a biological determination.  Race is a truth of self that we cannot discuss separately from our constructed social positions, and it is the tension between these two races, race of self and race of definition, that Mamet explores so well through this play. Mired in this tension is the process of determining truths, as what is truth to one may not be for another. The script is heavily Sophist in its construction, which requires immense focus on words. We enter the story mid-sentence, and leave it just as abruptly, leaving many questions for the audience to consider. 

Mamet’s script is challenging, but the cast wrestles with it effortlessly. Jason Priestley has been hitting the headlines after being cast as Jack Lawson, the white lawyer. I’m thrilled to say that this is not an incident of stunt casting – he has gone to great effort to separate himself from his Brandon Walsh character of television fame. While initially a bit stiff, he found his stride within a few lines and I lost track of the fact that this was Jason Priestley. Rather, his performance allowed me to focus on the dialogue and events. Nigel Shawn Williams as Henry Brown is an excellent foil to Jack Lawson, while Cara Ricketts as Susan confuses both of their stances, sometimes with just a look. Matthew Edison delivered a straight performance as Charles Strickland, the accused. I’m not certain if the role allows for nuance, but I felt as though there wasn’t quite enough there. This is a small complaint though, in what overall is a fascinating production. Direction by Daniel Brooks is uncluttered and the design (set, costumes and properties) by Debra Hanson is detailed and unobtrusive.

In the program, Canadian Stage provides each person with a sticky note, inviting each member in the audience to “share their thoughts about RACE… and add [their] voice to the display in the lobby.” I wasn’t able to participate, as this production left me in a state of uncomfortable contemplation about race and what it means to me. Any work of theatre that demands this much consideration after the fact is worth seeing. Between the powerful script, precise performances, and skilled direction, RACE is yet another offering from Canadian Stage that is not to be missed.

RACE runs until May 5

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