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 Aug. 23, 2016
The Milwaukee theater season is underway and I've been looking through the schedule. I've found 24 productions I'm really anticipating. There are going to be others, and surprises, but my 24 are the productions I can't wait to see and experience.
Published Aug. 18, 2016
As Milwaukee struggles with the issue of how to deal with racial violence, it's critical to find answers to two key questions. The first question is how did Milwaukee become so racist. The second is how do we fix a culture that loves violence.
Published Aug. 16, 2016
Simon Mustaffa is 18 and lives in the Central City. He's off to UWM with a full scholarship and he has strong views about the violence in Sherman Park. For him, it's not a surprise at all; this explosion was a long time coming.
Published Aug. 16, 2016
All In Productions has a history that can be measured in months, but it has already staged some wonderful plays. It has produced five so far, and the next one is directed by artistic director Robby McGhee, who knows where this company wants to go.
Published Aug. 13, 2016
Under the feathery touch of director Marcella Kearns, Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" takes isolation, desolation and disappointment and stands them on their ear, filling the Cabot Theatre with chuckles, laughters and outright roars of fun
Published Aug. 12, 2016
A sweltering hot August night was the perfect atmosphere for the opening night of "No Exit," Jean Paul Sartre's trip through his particular and peculiar vision of hell. The Dale Gutzman-directed production is a searing journey through the existential mind.
Published Aug. 11, 2016
Election day has come and gone and some of the results in the primary contests are satisfying, but also quite a bit troubling. Leading the satisfaction category is the reelection of District Attorney John Chisholm over Verona Swanigan, 65% to 35%.
Published Aug. 9, 2016
If you are young(ish), headed out on a warm Saturday night and want to go drinking Downtown, you have your choice of four distinctly different areas and crowds to join. As an Uber driver, I spend lots of time in all four places.
Published Aug. 4, 2016
First take a tempest. Then take a teapot.Then put the tempest in the teapot. Here's what you get, according to the dictionary. "A small or unimportant event that is over-reacted to, as if it were of considerably more consequence." We've got them.
Published Aug. 2, 2016
The sale of the office building at the Broadway Theatre Center seems inevitable and the action will force two local companies, Chamber Theatre and Renaissance Theaterworks to find new office space, as well as new performance venues.