Questions, itâ€™s been said, are easy; itâ€™s the answers that are hard.
That may well be a general truth, but the questions are very difficult in the production of the David Mamet play "Race," which opened over the weekend at Next Act Theatre.
Mamet uses his tried and true twists and turns in a story that attempts to address what may well be the most persistent and difficult issue in America: the inability of people to honestly have discussions about race.
The setup for these discussions is deceptively simple.
Two attorneys â€“ the white Jack Lawson (David Cecsarini) and the black Henry Brown (Lee Palmer) â€“ are faced with a decision whether to take the case of Charles Strickland (Jonathan Smoots).
Strickland, a wealthy and privileged white man, is charged with raping a black woman half his age. He professes his innocence.
The lawyers are tempted to take a pass on the case, but when their newest hire, a young black attorney named Susan (Tiffany Renee Johnson), calls for documents, those actions mysteriously force them into representing Strickland.
And with that decision made, we are off and running with a mystery story, as well as an increasingly bitter and surprising examination of what the two races think of each other.
The path Mamet leads us down is booby-trapped with revelations that raise all kinds of questions.Â
Do black people mistrust and hate white people? The answer may well be yes.Â Are white people afraid of being called racist if they talk about black people honestly? A yes to that one too.
At one point, Cecsarini, talking to Susan about taking this case to the jury, with great certitude describes what may well happen on the rocky road ahead.
"If whites find him innocent, they will be afraid of being called racist," he says. "If blacks find him innocent, they think it will be treason."
"Race" has a reputation as a searing and fierce examination of racial attitudes. The marketing for the play makes much of the brutal honesty of this sojourn.
In truth, not much of the play is shocking. The profanity, along with the utter disgust and distrust of whites by blacks has been mined to both dramatic and comedic ends. Richard Pryor and Chris Rock built careers on this stuff.
The cast makes the most of what theyâ€™ve got to work with here.
Cecsarini draws a portrait of the lawyer as a heartless shark who is well attuned to the paranoia that afflicts both races. He is also marvelously defensive when forced to face his own muddled attitudes.
Palmer is an honest and well-balanced personality, and he provides the most humor in the play, albeit the kind of profane race-baited lines that have long since lost their ability to shock whites or blacks.
Johnson is making her Next Act debut in this production, and sheâ€™s got the fire and brimstone of angry young black woman down pat. It would have been nice to see her character given more opportunity for some depth.
Smoots is a curious character. He professes his innocence, but rushes to apologize for the act of which heâ€™s accused and of past indiscretions as well. His lust for apology and forgiveness seems to top even his wish to be found innocent of the crime he is accused of committing. Heâ€™s the symbol of the infuriated white forced to say heâ€™s sorry for something he doesnâ€™t think he did.
Edward Morgan directs this play as an actorâ€™s director, giving his players the opportunity to stretch and grow. He has his eyes on the big picture of this play.
But I am always struck by details that both add and subtract from a production.
There are three men in this play. Two of them are big time lawyers. The other is a wealthy and demanding man accused of committing a horrible crime.
None of them had cuffed pants. Iâ€™ve been in lots of lawyersâ€™ offices, and I even know some millionaires. I have never seen them with uncuffed pants.
This is an interesting theatrical experience. Itâ€™s not shocking or troubling, but it does raise a series of intellectual questions that deserve our attention.
"Race" continues at Next Act through Feb. 23. Information is available at nextact.org.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Dave Begel
Published May 3, 2016
Being an Uber driver in Milwaukee is a one-of-a-kind experience that allows Dave Begel to meet some of the city's most interesting people. Everybody has a story, and Tales from the Road will highlight some of those stories.
Published April 30, 2016
Playwright August Wilson is famous for his 10-play cycle examining the experience of black people in the United States, and none of his plays stands as revered as "Fences," which The Rep opened Friday night.
Published April 29, 2016
A play about life in the theater, a life full of ups and downs and in betweens, is sometimes a shaky thing, trying to connect with an audience that may or may not have the inside knowledge that you need to get all the jokes.
Published April 28, 2016
In our lust to keep Milwaukee a happy place for millions of millennials, are we going to get stuck with a bunch of buildings that look like they belong in a Saturday morning cartoon?
Published April 26, 2016
Several Milwaukee theaters - from The Rep to First Stage to Next Act and more - have become crusaders for the world around them, staging productions and activities that try to shed light on a wide variety of social issues.
Published April 23, 2016
Place. Play. Performance. When all three P's are there, a night at the theater can turn into magic, and that's what you get at "Ernest in Love" that opened at In Tandem Theatre Friday night.
Published April 21, 2016
Everybody in Wisconsin was all worked up about the presidential primary races a couple of weeks ago but the race between Sen. Ron Johnson and former Sen. Russ Feingold could have a lasting impact on the balance of power in Washington.
Published April 19, 2016
The recent staging of the touching hit musical "Once" that played a week at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts raised an issue that some people think is important to the quality of a production.
Published April 16, 2016
For a master class on how to put a drunk scene on stage, let me recommend "Fallen Angels," the Noel Coward drawing room comedy that opened Friday night at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
Published April 16, 2016
Hotel rooms are expanding with openings imminent or on the drawing board for the near future. Perhaps the one drawing the most attention is the Klimpton Journeyman Hotel, scheduled to open in the Historic Third Ward in June.