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.
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 Sept. 16, 2014
This has been a difficult week for the National Football League, the most popular sport in the country, by far. And the affairs of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Roger Goodell have raised a series of questions and which may be difficult to answer, but which deserve our best try at answers.
Published Sept. 15, 2014
Deborah Staples is an actor and an associate artist at the Milwaukee Rep. She is at the absolute top of her game and delivers memorable performances wherever she appears. It would seem that with her career and her family, there would be no room left. However, she has begun to scale a new mountain in her life as she steps behind the footlights to direct her first play.
Published Sept. 14, 2014
Sometimes stepping off the beaten path, or outside of the mainstream, can be fraught with peril but on occasion it can turn into a wonderful surprise and you pat yourself on the back for taking the big step. Such was my reaction after stepping into the deliciously tiny space of Theatre Unchained in order to see the production of "The Addams Family Musical."
Published Sept. 13, 2014
We may not have movie stars like California, oranges like Florida or corn like Iowa, but Wisconsin has a long list of excellent stuff we've given to the rest of the world. Here are the top 13 things that carry the "Made in Wisconsin" tag.
Published Sept. 12, 2014
The little Alchemist Theatre space is one of the real jewels in this city, and it comes alive in an amazing fashion with "Destiny, Deviltry & Dentistry," a hilarious collection of sketches running through Sept. 20.
Published Sept. 11, 2014
Political correctness has intruded on one of the most precious pillars of our government, a pillar that was embraced at the very beginning of this country.
Published Sept. 9, 2014
The Milwaukee Brewers can still run and hit and pitch and throw and catch as well as they ever could, but they aren't doing any of those things even decently now. And I think it's the fault of the manager.
Published Sept. 9, 2014
From that time on I have always thought those two things, intelligence and courage, were critical elements in any football player. And that's why I am so overly disappointed in the way the Packers opened their season last week against the Seahawks in Seattle.
Published Sept. 8, 2014
The Rep's new production is a rollicking start to the theater season and one that is full of everything that's great about country music: a sly sense of humor, an equally sly sense of what makes a good story and a devoted faithfulness to an era gone by and mourned.
Published Sept. 4, 2014
As the Milwaukee Brewers' swoon continues it won't be long before the finger pointing starts in earnest. I wonder if anybody is going to bother to look at the new right fielder, Ryan Braun.