"Race" by David Mamet

A Play About Skin, Sex, and Scandal

David Mamet
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David Mamet is an expert perturber. Within ninety minutes he unnerves his audience, giving couples something to argue about on the way home. I've listened to supposed soul mates debate to the verge of relationship meltdown, all because of the sexual harassment issues presented in Mamet's play, Oleanna. Likewise, in other plays such as Speed the Plow, the audience is never quite sure which character is right and which character is wrong.

Or perhaps we are meant to be perturbed by all of the characters, as we are with the unethical batch of salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross. By the end of David Mamet's 2009 drama Race, we meet several caustic characters, all of whom will leave the audience with something to think about as well as something to argue about.

The Basic Plot

Jack Lawson (white, mid 40s) and Henry Brown (black, mid 40s) are attorneys at a burgeoning law firm. Charles Strickland (white, mid 40s) a prominent business man, has been charged with rape. The woman accusing him is black; the lawyers realize that the case will be all the more difficult because race will be the dominant factor throughout the trial. The men expect Susan, a new attorney with the firm (black, early 20s) to help determine whether or not they should accept Strickland as their client, but Susan has other plans in mind.

Charles Strickland

He was born into wealth and, according to the other characters, never had to listen to the word "No." Now, he has been accused of rape.

The victim is a young, African American woman. According to Strickland at the beginning of the play, they were in a consensual relationship. However, as the drama continues, Strickland begins to unravel as shameful moments from his past come to light. For example, a college roommate (a black male) drudges up an old postcard written by Strickland, in which he uses racial slurs and profanity to describe the weather in Bermuda.

Strickland is stunned when the lawyers explain that the "humorous" message is racist. Throughout the play, Strickland wants to make a public apology to the press, not to confess to a rape, but to admit that there may have been a misunderstanding.

Henry Brown

One of this characters most fascinating monologues is delivered at the top of the show. Here, the African American attorney suggests that most white people maintain the following views about black people:

HENRY: You want to tell me about black folks? I'll help you: O.J. Was guilty. Rodney King was in the wrong place, but the police have the right to use force. Malcolm X. Was noble when he renounced violence. Prior to that he was misguided. Dr. King was, of course, a saint. He was killed by a jealous husband, and you had a maid when you were young who was better to you than your own mother.

Brown is an insightful, no-nonsense lawyer who is the first to detect just how toxic the Charles Strickland case will be to their law firm. He thoroughly understands the justice system and human nature, so he foresees how both white and black jurors will react to Strickland's case. He is a good match for his law partner, Jack Lawson, because Brown, despite Lawson's keen understanding of prejudice, is not so easily fooled by the crafty young attorney, Susan.

Like other "wake up call" characters featured in Mamet plays, Brown's role is to shed light on his partner's poor judgment of character.

Jack Lawson

Lawson has been working with Henry Brown for twenty years, during which time he has embraced Brown's wisdom regarding race relations. When Susan confronts Lawson, correctly believing that he ordered an extensive background check on her (due to her skin color), he explains:

Jack: I. Know. There is nothing. A white person. Can say to a black person. About Race. Which is not both incorrect and offensive.

Yet, as Brown points out, Lawson might believe he is above the social pitfalls of race issues simply because he understands the problem. In reality, Lawson says and does several offensive things, each of which can be interpreted as racist and/or sexist.

As mentioned above, he decides that it would be a wise business decision to conduct a thorough investigation of black applicants at the law firm, explaining that the extra-level of precaution is because African Americans have certain advantages when it comes to law suits. Also, one of his strategies to save his client involves re-wording Strickland's racial hate speech into racially charged erotic banter. Finally, Lawson crosses the line when he provocatively suggests that Susan wear a sequined dress (the same style worn by the alleged victim) in court so they can demonstrate that the sequins would have fallen off if a rape actually took place. By suggesting that she wear the dress (and be thrown onto a mattress in the middle of the courtroom) Lawson reveals his desire for her, though he masks it with a detached attitude of professionalism.

Susan

For the sake of not giving away any more spoilers than I already have, I will not divulge much about Susan's character. However, it is worth noting that Susan is the only person in the play whose last name is never revealed. Also, though this play is titled Race, David Mamet's drama is very much about sexual politics. This truth becomes perfectly clear as the audience learns the true intentions behind Susan's character.