Review: David Mamet's play puts racial politics on trial

Published May 23, 2012

TAMPA — Charles Strickland looks cornered, boxed in, trapped. A beefy, prosperous white man in his 40s, he is uncomfortably seated against a wall in the opening scene of Race, the David Mamet play that is receiving an enthralling production, directed by David Jenkins for Jobsite Theater.

Charles, played by Ned Averill-Snell, is squirming for good reason. Charged with raping a young black woman, he is undergoing a withering examination by two lawyers he has asked to represent him. They are not treating their client kindly.

Henry Brown, an African-American lawyer, with more than a touch of the late Johnnie Cochran to him in a slyly amused performance by "ranney," reels off a list of politically incorrect things about race that a white man like Charles would never dare to say outside of a country club bar.

"Do you know what you can say? To a black man. On the subject of race?" Henry demands of Charles. "Nothing," the defendant meekly replies.

And then Henry's partner, Jack Lawson, fiercely played by Paul J. Potenza, weighs in. With eyeglasses perched on the end of his nose, Potenza's portrayal of the white lawyer in this legal and racial tag-team is intensely philosophical, browbeating Charles with pungently nuanced theories of guilt and innocence, shame and redemption. Jack is also a courtroom strategist par excellence, concocting a brilliant defense based on the sequins of the victim's red dress.

What is it about Chicago playwrights? In some respects, Race is reminiscent of A Steady Rain, the cop drama by Keith Huff recently performed at American Stage. Though Mamet hasn't lived in Chicago for many years, his best work has a gritty realism that is characteristic of the city's theater scene, which he had so much to do with establishing. Huff, who still lives in Chicago, is clearly influenced by Mamet's terse, tough dialogue.

However, it is something of a misnomer to say that Mamet's characters talk the way that people actually talk. It just seems that way in the heightened atmosphere of the theater. The kind of blunt, profane truth telling that takes place in Race never happens in real life.

There is a fourth character in Race, Susan (Tia Jemison), a young African-American lawyer whose hiring by Jack and Henry has brought up ambiguous issues around not only race — as in affirmative action — but also sex and power, another staple Mamet theme. Susan resembles the grad student who brings a case of sexual misbehavior against a professor in Oleanna, and her slippery grasp on honesty shares some of that character's weaknesses. It's not news to report that Mamet's depiction of women falls short of his men.

Race is not top-shelf Mamet — that would be American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, maybe Speed-the-Plow — but it's close enough to remind you what a dramatic powerhouse he can be.

A final note: The Straz Center really should look into soundproofing the Shimberg Playhouse. Last Thursday, during the performance of Race I attended, there was also an event with music going on in the adjacent Maestro's restaurant, and sound from that leaked into the theater, creating an annoying distraction from the action on stage.

John Fleming can be reached at or (727) 893-8716.