When I first found out that Jason Priestley was going to be returning to the stage in a David Mamet play, I was intrigued. When I found out that Canadian Stage was bringing it to Toronto, I was excited. But after I saw the NOW Talks presentation with Priestley wherein the play was discussed in more depth, I knew I had to see it! I believe my ticket was purchased the very next day, in point of fact.
I decided to join my friend and co-worker, Beth Beard, at one of the preview nights – in part because it was cheaper, in part because I could then do a write up in time for the regular run to begin, and in part because I suspected I would want someone to talk to about it with after it was over! As predicted, the play gave me more than enough to write and talk about but, more importantly, it set my mind a-fire with things to think about, as well.
Race is the story of rich, white, married, American man, Charles Strickland (Matthew Edison), who is accused of raping a young, black woman. In trying to mount a fair defence for himself, he decides to hire a specific law firm to represent him in court – one which has two intelligent attorneys who are more than capable of taking on such an incendiary case, and possibly even winning it. For Strickland, however, the selling point of this particular firm is that one attorney is white, while the other is black. Unfortunately – or maybe fortunately – the investigation opens up far more than the usual he-said/she-said dynamic of many rape cases, and instead delves more into the much more meaningful issues involving racial and sexual tensions that lie just below the surface – and that are about to boil over completely.
Directed by Daniel Brooks, Race stars Jason Priestley in the lead role of Jack Lawson, a smart attorney who is well-versed in the law, and who is not afraid to tell the truth as he sees it. His partner, Henry Brown (Nigel Shawn Williams), is his equal in almost every way, though Jack never lets us forget that the firm is his business to run, partner or no partner. To further complicate matters in this particular case is Susan (Cara Ricketts), the firm’s young black female associate. Her presence adds an extra bit of gender inequality to the mix, as well, especially given that Ricketts has to hold her own while playing the only female character present in the play.
Priestley is outstanding in his theatrical return. He is on stage literally every moment of the show’s roughly 100-minute run time, and the sheer amount of dialogue that his character chews through alone is worthy of high praise. I couldn’t even remember some of the best lines by the time I’d left the theatre, so how he manages to keep it all in his head for each show is beyond me. As an actor, he also happens to be the perfect embodiment of Jack – few of his peers can pull off such smart-assed arrogance while still keeping his character both relatable and likeable for the audience (an audience which was – in my preview run – almost entirely white). Jack Lawson almost always tells the truth, even if it’s difficult for the person with whom he’s speaking to hear. Or maybe especially if it’s difficult for them to hear. He lies to protect himself, of course, but he’s not entirely married to the idea of keeping the lie a secret. There were a few times I was shocked at some of the things that came out of his mouth – but at the same time, I almost always agreed with his point of view, whether I’d ever admit it out loud, or not.
He even used several words I would have looked up in a dictionary…if I could remember what any of them were.
Nigel Shawn Williams is a gift as Henry Brown. He’s the perfect foil to keep Priestley’s Jack in check, while also delivering many of the play’s most comedic and/or most darkly relevant moments. He acquiesces to Jack’s lead most of the time, but he is also unafraid of putting his foot down and demanding to be heard when it’s required. Sitting in the front row, I was almost afraid of him a couple of times, in those moments when Henry was most enraged or insistent. Williams can seem to fill up an entire theatre by himself, when he wants to, and is quite capable of becoming a very imposing presence just by altering his tone of voice and the way he stands or walks across the stage.
Which leads us to young Susan, who has every right as a character to be completely overshadowed by the powerful men with whom she is sharing the stage. She, however, is just the opposite of what you might expect. The character is intelligent and knows when to hold her tongue, even as she watches over the proceedings with the eye of a hawk. She doesn’t miss a thing, and knows which moments are the best ones in which to speak her mind. Ricketts is a master of melting into the background one moment, and becoming a solid immovable force the next. She infuses Susan with a smooth, calm and quiet grace that stands strong and alone among her male counterparts on the stage.
As the accused rapist, Charles Strickland, Matthew Edison walks the line perfectly between hapless victim and priviliged wealth. I found I could never decide upon what I really thought about him – is he innocent, or guilty? Perpetrator, or victim? Am I rooting for him, or would I rather see him falter and land in prison, after all? Edison plays him as the hero of his own story – like every good actor should – but somehow also manages to make Strickland seem like he is being less than honest with himself, his lawyers, and with us. He appears confused about what is happening to him some of the time, yet will turn on a dime and show us some of his arrogance, ignorance and rage. His case is about determining whether or not Charles Strickland is a rapist in the eyes of the law, but as we soon discover, the story is really about much more than that – and Edison’s Strickland is right in the middle of it all.
Guilt and innocence are legal terms which have very little practical use in the real world. How a person is viewed by the public, their peers, their family and even the jury is not usually based on truth, as even truth can be subjective at times. Henry and Jack have to decide whether Charles’ case is even worth taking, because in the general public eye – win or lose – the firm will likely lose. What does it mean if a black lawyer defends a white man in court? What does it mean if a white lawyer defends him? Especially when rape trials are so difficult on all parties to begin with – how much more demeaning and life-altering are they when race is also involved?
Upon leaving the theatre after the show, we were all given yellow stickie notes that said, “Race is”, and it is left to the individual to fill out and leave on the boards posted in the lobby. It was very interesting to see the different responses to that question – and, in fact, the different interpretations of the question itself. Is it about the play? The performance? Race itself?
Rather than scratch the surface of that question, Mamet seems instead to have punched through it and blown it wide open, leaving it to the audience to interpret and discuss as they see fit. It would appear that, rather than try to provide us with answers, the playwright would prefer us to ask more questions. Here’s to hoping that the dialogue does not stop there.
Race is a Canadian Stage Production, and is playing at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto from April 7 – May 5, 2013. Tickets are on sale now!