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Frank Conversations

by James Yeara on January 23, 2013

By David Mamet, directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, Capital Repertory Theatre, through Feb. 12


West and Thomas in Race, photo by Joe Schuyler

Set designer Ken Goldstein gives Capital Rep’s Race a stately law office lined with orderly law books to backdrop the pristine wooden conference table edged with chrome. Deborah Constantine gives Race a clean, well-lighted look, with blackouts between the three scenes of the play. Costume designer Carolyn Walker gives the four characters sharkskin costumes in cold colors that reflect their souls. The four-actor cast—Kevin Craig West and J. Anthony Crane as black and white law partners Henry Brown and Jack Lawson, Wynn Harmon as steely rich white man Charles Strickland, and Shelley Thomas as the light-skinned, sharp, newly hired assistant attorney—give Race snap, crackle, and pop. Director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill gives Race a smart, kick-ass pace and sets the pieces firmly in motion. Other than at Shakespeare & Company (Satchmo!), audiences won’t find such pugnacious plays cutting through the headlines to look at the nastier souls behind the nasty words. Here “race” is also a verb defining how quickly the play’s 80 minutes is over; a noun for the contest that truly motivates lawyers; and that feeling about skin tone that dare not speak its name.

In short, in this polemic of a play, where truth stands in the way of the revelations about blacks, whites, rich, poor, females, males, the guilty, the innocence, the sex, the lies, and the . . . well, it’s better let to Mamet’s characters have their say (starting from play’s end to its beginning):

“He was guilty because he was a white man.”

“Can we call things by their names?”

“People are envious and sinful.”

“All people deal with shame or guilt—that’s why whites want their taxies raised, blacks want to say ‘Fuck you Whitey.’”

“Sex looks funny if you’re not doing it.”

“We’re herd-fucking people and we’ve got to go home and face the people on the stoop.”

“This isn’t about sex—this is about race.”

“What’s the difference?”

“’My nigger bitch’—anyone ever call you that?”

“She let her color jump on her intellect.”

“You’re his science project not mine.”

“His acquittal depends on his entertainer putting on a better show (than the


“Black people can’t commit adultery to a white jury.”

“Whites fear being racist—blacks fear race betrayal.”

“Everyone is entitled to a defense. Fucking country.”

“How does a guilty man act?”

“I tried being poor. I didn’t like it.”

“You think black people are stupid?”

“I think all people are stupid. I don’t think blacks are exempt.”

“Nicky Greenstein, he’s one smart Jew.”

“You never begged for pussy? You never begged the officer to let you off for DWI?”

“All cases are about hatred, fear, or envy.”

“Write a catalogue of your sins.”

“‘Do all black people hate white people?’ Let me set your mind at rest: We do.”

“Belief hamstrings the advocate. Neither side wants the truth.”

“Belief cannot be controlled. The appearance of belief can be induced or distorted.”

“You want to tell me about black folk?”

If you know Mamet’s plays, you know women are the oil that burns to run the show, or combusts to burn the whole damned thing down. It’s telling that the 2009 Broadway run featured noted comedians David Alan Grier in its opening then Eddie Izzard in the subsequent June 2010 replacements (though not in the same roles). Laughter is not infrequently heard after the above lines, and the four-actor cast will earn even more as they tighten the pace, causing the audience to react before they have a second to figure out what they’re reacting to, in the coming weeks.

In Three Uses of the Knife, David Mamet writes, “When you come into the theater, you have to be willing to say, ‘We’re all here to undergo a communion, to find out what the hell is going on in this world.’ If you’re not willing to say that, what you get is entertainment instead of art, and poor entertainment at that.” Written in 2009, a year before Dominique Strauss-Kahn allegedly assaulted a maid in his hotel room, Capital Repertory Theatre’s Race is art, and pretty fucking good art, no matter who is guilty at play’s end, because we’re all full of the world’s bullshit, and Mamet lets us breathe through the BS by way of straw (wo)men for 80 minutes. Take deep breaths before you leave the theater, because it’ll be some time before for you get such artful air again in area theaters.