Next Act takes on race relations with Mamet’s ‘Race’

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Lee Palmer in Next Act Theater's production of David Mamet's 'Race'

Next Act Theatre doesn’t normally shy away from controversial subject matter, but staging a play about race relations that’s literally titled Race is a bit blunt, even for this group.

The play’s author is provocateur David Mamet, who specializes in works that deliberately get in audiences’ faces.

But director Ed Morgan says Race is relatively free of what critics and audiences have dubbed “Mamet-speak.” He says the play is an ironic, analytical critique of how race relations have made society dysfunctional, as seen through the lens of the American judicial system. That’s verbiage a bit fancier than the play itself, which is set within the offices of a successful big-city law firm helmed by two partners: Jack Lawson (David Cesarini), a white man, and Henry Brown (Lee Palmer), a black man.

Race begins as the two partners, along with a newly hired black lawyer Susan (Tiffany Renee Johnson), determine whether to defend a wealthy businessman (Jonathan Smoots) who’s been accused of assaulting a young, black, female employee.

While the play’s plot  sounds like it’s been set on stereotypical fault lines, Morgan warns against letting your assumptions guide you too far. That’s one of the very points Mamet’s play addresses, he says.

For example, you’d expect the play’s characters to be racially aligned, but their opinions on race could at times put Susan, who places as much significance on her race as her profession as a lawyer, closer in alignment to the race-conscious Jack than Henry, who identifies as a lawyer first and foremost.

Morgan expects audiences to be drawn in by the multifaceted characterizations as well as the contemporary setting (the play premiered in 2009 and is set in present-day) that forces the play to focus on the way things are now, not where they’ve come from. A former resident of Milwaukee who left the city a year ago after more than a decade, Morgan thinks the show could have a particular resonance here, due to the city’s own complicated history of race relations. “Anybody who works in public institutions will be familiar with or could apply what they’re hearing,” Morgan says. “It will feel, in part, about the world where they’re living.”

But Race is not all academic theorizing. Morgan says the play crackles, flying through three extended scenes where its characters frequently challenge each other’s notions of how the world works. Most interestingly, that dialogue often contains — aside from all the issues of race — an insider’s jaded opinion on the nature of law and justice, which Morgan says both Jack and Henry try to sell Susan on through the play. “These guys are saying, ‘Our job is to win, our job’s not to pursue justice,’” Morgan says. “‘If justice happens, that’s a good thing, but we’re hired to win.’” It’s an interesting perspective, one that runs beneath the narrative like an undercurrent.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Race is the way the case itself falls away in significance as the play pushes forward. Morgan says he sees a conscious effort on Mamet’s part to make the play not ultimately be about the client’s guilt or innocence, but rather about the situation it provokes. That choice makes the play’s conclusion blurry in a way that could potentially perplex audiences, but that’s a risk Morgan likes and believes he and his cast can overcome.

“It’s not about if somebody’s good and somebody’s bad, it’s how they all fall into the traps of their assumptions, of their actions,” Morgan says. “They’re all laboring under illusions … caught in the tangle of history and race relations that Mamet would say is hampering all of our relations — hampering just going forward and resolving what is possibly the thorniest, most persistent problem in our culture.”

On the Web: A preview is at www.youtube.com/watch?v=seGTjXi-b_A.

On stage

Next Act’s production of Race opens Jan. 31, and runs through Feb. 23. Performances are 7:30 p.m. weeknights, 4:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. There are matinees at 1:30 p.m. on select Wednesdays. Tickets range from $25 to $35 and can be purchased at 414-278-0765 or nextact.org.