Review: Race – 4 stars


Race, October 14 – November 4, 2012, The Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA. 617-923-8487.

What is “Truth”? O.J. Simpson, Martin Luther, King, Jr., and Malcolm X might all say different things. Whatever it is, it seems to be based on the experiences and beliefs of an individual. It is a perspective as seen through a particular lens in a certain historical time period – and it can differ, depending on who is doing the viewing and talking, as any lawyer might be interested in telling you. The New Repertory Theatre in Watertown pushes the boundaries with many of its productions and its latest is Race by 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner, David Mamet, who likes to challenge social institutions. If Mamet’s name sounds familiar, he received an Academy Award nomination for The Verdict and wrote the screenplay for The Untouchables.

The Boston Premiere of Race is the story of Charles Strickland, a white man, played by Patrick Shea, who is accused of raping a black woman. He is searching for new legal representation and finds himself in the office of a white lawyer, Jack Lawson, and a black lawyer, Henry Brown. According to these lawyers, there are only three types of cases, those based on hatred, fear, or envy. Strickland’s case reveals the inner character of the characters and delves into giving chances, taking chances, and betrayal as they wrestle with the questions, “What does it cost us, if we lose?” and “What does it cost us, if we win?”

Ken Cheeseman plays Jack Lawson, a fast talking, fancy vocabulary wielding, not afraid to drop a few f-bombs attorney whose “Who are you?” interchange reminded me of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. Cliff Odle plays Henry Brown whose quips about the nature of race relations cut to the chase, as when he says, “No one’s told him ‘No’ for fifty years” referring to his soon-to-be-client. Rounding out the cast is Miranda Craigwell playing Susan, who appears to be a mild-mannered secretary, but morphs into a powerhouse attorney by the end of this one act play. The physical and spoken interactions between these actors moves across the office from the sitting area with newspapers and a brandy tray to the desk with a rolling chair and phone. Each scene is punctuated by the dramatic closing of the vertical blinds, signifying a scene’s end with both a loud clapping sound and a lighting change that hides the office hallway. This is a clever and great effect created by Rebecca K. David’s props and Scott Pinkney’s lighting that takes the place of closing a curtain.

There are only four actors on stage, but other folks are talked about, referred to, and spoken with on the phone, making the ensemble seem much larger and bringing another level of perspective, conversation, and richness into the dialogue. The lawyers are not only passing judgment on whether their client committed rape, a felony, or merely solicited a prostitute, a misdemeanor; they are also judging potential jurors. They offer two solutions to the case, the lawyers can help the jurors “like themselves enough to feel good about making a difficult decision” or they can “give them a hook on which to hang their bad judgment.”

This intense theatrical piece works at multiple levels. See it for the comedy as the lawyers duke it out about innocence, guilt, justice, and shame. If you have a confession, head the humorous, but serious, warning to “Post it on a tree, tell it to God, but do not tell it to the press.” Or, imagine the play is as a live action CSI who-done-it with the evidence unfolding before you, and consider that “Justice, if it exists, lies in the imperfect.” Or, take the show back to your intellectual group of friends and have a deep discussion about “isms.” In fact, if you are a teacher, this is a great dramatic work to send your college, or even high school, students to view and then have them come back to class and discuss racism, sexism, classism, privilege, and internalized oppression. For example, what is the meaning behind the statement, “No matter what he did, they’re gonna hate him… because he’s white.”

The house for Race was packed with racially diverse folks dressed nicely and ready for an evening out on the town. In a time when many theaters are struggling to keep subscribers active, The New Rep is steadily increasing in subscriptions, partly due to cutting edge productions. At the end of the show, my friend and I were talking all the way to the car and home. We could not decide whether the evidence revealed itself naturally after an investigation or whether it had been planted. See this show and form your own opinion about this commentary on contemporary society’s issues with Race.

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