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 July 21, 2016
So the nightmare is true and Donald Trump actually may be president. The whole thing has made Dave Begel wonder about prominent conservatives in Wisconsin and whether they will support Trump. It turns out that they are split on the nomination.
Published July 19, 2016
Summer theater in Wisconsin usually means Spring Green or Door County. But there are several summer productions that look interesting and that range from the classical to the experimental, both indoors and under the stars of Milwaukee.
Published July 14, 2016
People say that America is more divided now than ever, but it was less than a lifetime ago when this country was torn apart by the quest for civil rights and the drive to end the war in Vietnam. Those times were full of violent demonstrations.
Published July 12, 2016
The Milwaukee Rep has announced a unique training program for teenage actors in the city, as part of the company's commitment to stimulating dialogue and creating engagement opportunities revolving around social issues facing the city.
Published July 8, 2016
They looked just like any other happy couple coming out of Summerfest when I picked them up at the staging area. But once they got into the car, the tension was obvious, and eventually, it boiled over.
Published July 5, 2016
All of the arts enable us to see things, especially in ourselves, we might otherwise miss. I have an idea, and it's something that could help brand Milwaukee better than any flag, slogan or video. Let's make Milwaukee the epicenter of the world for public art.
Published June 30, 2016
Now that the OSPP has exploded in mid-air like the Big Bang fireworks, the question is where do we go from here? The plan, which many saw as the right wing continuing to try and chip away at MPS, didn't have much of a chance of working.
Published June 30, 2016
Being an Uber driver in Milwaukee is a one-of-a-kind experience that lets Dave Begel meet some interesting people, residents and visitors to the city. Everybody has a story, and Tales of the Road will highlight some of those stories.
Published June 29, 2016
The city has agreed to cut a check for $968,331.75 after losing its lawsuit at trial and again in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals after the initial verdict. The amount covers both the damage award and attorney fees.
Published June 28, 2016
It's easy for the normal person to wonder what mountains there are left to climb for James DeVita, who may well be the finest actor ever to grace the stages in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. A mystery, "A Winsome Murder," is his first novel for adult readers.