David Mamet's "Race" compels at Ocean State Theatre
The fast-moving, one-upmanship dialogue in Ocean State Theatre Company’s production of “Race” forces the audience to stay alert but leaves them questioning at the finish line about where the real truth lies when it comes to race and sex in America.
David Mamet’s Broadway drama centered on three attorneys — two black, one white — who are confronted with defending a rich white man charged with the rape of a black woman. The play delves into unspoken topics of race relations, sexism and ethics. Filled with provocative one-liners like “Do you know what you can say to a black man about race?” the play gets off to a strong, in-your-face start.
Damron Russel Armstrong, in the role of African-American attorney Henry Brown, energetically leads the action with fellow attorney Jack Lawson, played by Christopher Swan. Sean McGuirk plays rich and powerful Charles Strickland and the cast is rounded out by Nakeisha Daniel, as Susan, a black junior Ivy-league lawyer with the firm.
Set entirely in a law office, the facts of the case are quickly explained and, clearly, Strickland’s guilt or innocence is of no importance to the attorneys. Rapid-fire exchanges of expletive-filled dialogue delve into compelling topics and is delivered on cue by the actors — but the audience needs a scorecard to keep track of the many arguments raised. Every level of racism is discussed, from bedroom politics to preconceived attitudes by all in the room. Ethics, guilt and shame are entangled in the discussions.
“This isn’t about sex, this is about race,” said Jack Lawson about the case.
“What’s the difference?” asks Henry Brown in reply.
To further complicate things, the play turns on Susan’s role and whether or not she betrayed the firm because of her assumed guilt of the client. It seems Susan harbors some deep bitter feelings and Henry Brown accuses her of scheming against Strickland. Whether she leads to the case’s demise or not is never answered.
The too-quick change of topic is what frustrates and leaves more questions than answers in this production. Focus switches from a red-sequined dress, to statements made by Strickland, to actions taken by Jack Lawson when he hired Susan.
Reviews of Mamet’s “Race” have been lukewarm since its Broadway premiere in 2009 and many believe the play stimulates conversation but leaves the audience with a hollow feeling.
That said, Ocean State Theatre’s production of “Race” still delivers on several fronts. The actors had few missteps when it came to delivering intricate lines. Casting was on cue, with powerful performances by Armstrong, McGuirk and Daniel. Set design and lighting was sleek and clean, down to the faux brick office walls and law books. And the theater’s new performance space at 1245 Jefferson Blvd. in Warwick gives the Matunuck-based summer theater a more professional, year-round setting for its shows.
Producing Artistic Director Amiee Turner explained that “Race” is about race but it is also a race to the finish line. In that approach, the cast and crew deliver. If anything, audience members will feel they are caught up in the whirlwind of Mamet’s world, however complicated that may be.
“Race” will presented through April 14, Wednesdays (except April 10) through Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $30 to $47 and can be ordered by visiting OceanStateTheatre.org or calling 921-6800.