David Mamet’s play Race opened to a packed house Sunday night on Broadway and put an end to the debate about whether or not America might actually be migrating towards a “post racial” consciousness. According to Mamet’s drama—which skillfully chafes at the psychology of human racism and forces the audience into the uncomfortable realities of modern human intolerance—we are all capable of racial and gender based prejudice and our best bet to survive as a whole is to rid ourselves of popular anti-discriminatory rhetoric and start acknowledging that the social stereotypes of old are still active and alive—even in the Obama era.
The play opens to a terse discussion between two lawyers Henry Brown (played by David Alan Grier) and Jack Lawson (James Spader) over the fate of their new client—a wealthy white male named Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas) who stands accused of raping a young black woman. Almost immediately, through the fervent and unforgiving interrogation of Strickland by the two lawyers, the audience is stripped of any misconceptions that Race might be yet another shame-inducing articulation of race matters, staged to leave the audience feeling both guilt ridden and apprehensive of the “others” around them. Instead, the small cast begins to build a provocative story based around the dark and often hidden human emotions that drive all of us onto common ground: guilt, pride, shame, cowardice, dishonesty, and fear.
Without examining our split-second judgments and unfounded assumptions, we are destined to repeat our most shameful actions.
This is not to assert that the numerous plays that have dealt with race have overlooked these very human themes, but rather that Mamet spares nobody in this piece and in turn causes the audience at large to examine their own deeply rooted racial biases and to reevaluate even the smallest, seemingly harmless action against their fellow man. This play artfully pronounces the many strains of self doubt and internal conflict we all face within ourselves and places it all under one roof without hope for escape.
The timing could not be better.
With Barack Obama in office, Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court justice, and David Paterson holding court as the governor of New York, it’s easy to pretend (or even believe) that racism has actually changed shape and that collectively, Americans have harmoniously wandered into a new utopian territory where color doesn’t matter as much as intellect and that within this colorful fantasy land we all finally understand each other. Thankfully Race quickly sets the record straight and takes the blinders off of all of us.
Quite clearly, Americans are all charged with a vicious shared history that none of us can break free from, but all too often we verbalize the victorious aspects of any story and abandon the necessary conversation that would clarify how exactly the victory was won.
When considering our nation’s president it is virtually impossible to recognize that Barack Obama’s election was a historical landmark without simultaneously wondering why we had not appointed a black man to office before. It is naive to assume Sotomayor was “the best woman for the job” without also wondering if there had perhaps been an equally qualified woman of color before Obama noticed her talents. And we all know how wonderfully guilt free the whole of New York felt when a blind black man was sworn into office as governor—the only catch is that nobody articulates the dark side—the parts we aim to hide from, the side of ourselves that wants to forget the past and revel in the present.
Understandably we long to wrap our arms around this modern, supposedly accepting America where black men raised in the inner city, fighting the cold in a black hooded jacket no longer stir fear in white collar workers on late-night train rides. We aim to believe that our educated black president is proof that black children really do have equal education to white students and that we have finally reached a place where the value system that created “Separate but Equal” no longer exists. But the simple truth is that without examining the very subtle small spaces where we hold ourselves accountable for our split-second judgments and unfounded assumptions, we are destined to repeat our most shameful actions.
Race starts that very journey. David Mamet and his small cast establish a new course to follow, one where we are charged with the task of looking at our own actions, our assumptions, and our own fears. After all, we are only human and we are in this together.
Elizabeth Gates is a style correspondent for The Daily Beast. She is a graduate of The New School University and a former intern at Vogue magazine.