David Mamet is an uncommonly effective playwright with a lean, fiercely profane style that is unmistakably his own. His aim is always to provoke, but in recent meditations on politics and the problems with "brain-dead liberals," he has tended to do that only. In an opinion piece written for The New York Times, for example, he described America's ongoing conversation about race as being "nothing but sanctimony." That's the theory he explores in Race, a play that would elicit applause from lines like, "I don't think we're brothers beneath the skin, over the skin, or in any way associated with the skin."
Race wants to achieve a mythological status by contrasting contemporary relations to the story of a white man accused of raping a black woman and in the defense created by an integrated law firm. The script echoes earlier works like Mamet's Speed the Plow and is an improvement over November, Mamet's gag-laden misfire about a sitting president given to sexist and xenophobic diatribes.
John Maness, a Memphis actor who's attracted to difficult material, admits that he was initially put off by the script. "But it's Mamet," he says, acknowledging the playwright's celebrated intellect and gift for dialogue. "This is a play about questions that don't have easy answers. There may not even be any answers. And like most Mamet, it's never about what actually happened. It's about what you can prove."
What Mamet seems be proving with Race is that self-interest trumps everything, and people tend to exploit whatever advantages they can. These are themes he's explored before. But would Oleanna, which is also about a sex crime that may or may not have happened, be nearly as inviting or effective if he'd called it Gender?
"Race" at TheatreWorks, as part of Playhouse on the Square's "POTS at the Works" series, July 6th-29th. playhouseonthesquare.org