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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014

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David Cecsarini and Lee Palmer star in Next Act Theatre's production of "Race."
David Cecsarini and Lee Palmer star in Next Act Theatre's production of "Race."

"Race" asks questions, but the answers are difficult

Questions, it’s been said, are easy; it’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 – the white Jack Lawson (David Cecsarini) and the black Henry Brown (Lee Palmer) – 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. 

Do black people mistrust and hate white people? The answer may well be yes. 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 they’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 she’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 he’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. He’s the symbol of the infuriated white forced to say he’s sorry for something he doesn’t think he did.

Edward Morgan directs this play as an actor’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. I’ve been in lots of lawyers’ offices, and I even know some millionaires. I have never seen them with uncuffed pants.

This is an interesting theatrical experience. It’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.

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