The anticipated premiere of “Race” at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre was met with a bit of shock, buzz and ultimately a standing ovation. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet, master craftsman of sharp dialogue, usually prepares audiences to hang on for the long haul (“American Buffalo,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Oleanna”) – but not here.
“Race” blasts back and forth, black and white, horror and humor, at a pace that left an audience of all colors salivating. And, perfectly naïve in his prejudices, Charles Strickland, played by veteran Evanston actor Patrick Clear, is at the center of the controversy.
Wealthy white client Charles (Mr. Clear) is charged with the rape of an African American woman, sparking fervent debate between his high-profile lawyers Henry (Geoffrey Owens), who is black, and Jack (Marc Grapey), who is white. Charles, married, denies the rape charge but admits consensual sex with the accuser, arguing their love for each other. The short of it: young black female victim versus wealthy white defendant. Attorneys painfully realize, “If we lose, we lose, and if we win, we lose.”
The lawyers deliberate over the pitfalls of accepting the case, which ultimately falls into their unwilling hands because of a mistake – or a deliberate administrative error – by Susan (Tamberla Perry). Susan is a 20-something black associate whose help they have enlisted to sort through crime-scene inconsistencies.
The lawyers’ suspicion of Susan’s motives, coupled with their struggle to find the truth amid their own prejudices, launches explosive banter charged with complex racial and gender politics.
With an audience alternately gasping at derogatory admissions and laughing at prejudiced blunders, the law office becomes a court itself. Characters methodically and sometimes harshly pick apart the issues of race, while at the same time grappling with what it means to be a defense attorney.
Although characters Henry and Jack dominate the “Race” experience, there are pivotal scenes when Charles is called in from the waiting room for consult – and sometimes interrogation. Mr. Clear has the ability to appear both commanding and clueless, both the esteemed billionaire and a bumbling racist.
While his attorneys are aghast at Charles’s driving desire to read an apologetic statement to the press, he remains baffled that his words, actions, and even past correspondence with a college roommate would be construed as prejudice.
Everyone has known someone like Mr. Strickland, and his confusion brings down the house.
“I think everyone can identify with Charles Strickland on some level,” said Mr. Clear, “because he is the product of his experience and probably thinks of himself as very liberal. His failure is probably one of imagination. He cannot comprehend that another’s experience of the world would be so vastly different.”
Mr. Mamet addresses the elephant in the room. “And he does it in a way that is so blatant,” said Mr. Clear, “that the line we all fear to cross appears in our rear-view mirror within the first few minutes of the play. It’s refreshing to put these tension-charged statements out there so that we can all look at them.
“I’ve also been surprised at how jazzed the audience is each night after the show. It is a rare opportunity, as an actor, to feel you are an active participant in an important civic dialogue.”
Mr. Clear has appeared in more than a dozen Goodman productions, including “King Lear”; “The Clean House”; “The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?”; “Arcadia”; “Dancing at Lughnasa”; “Miss Evers’ Boys” and “A Christmas Carol.” He has also been seen in plays at Chicago Shakespeare, Steppenwolf, Northlight and Remy Bumppo theatres; on Broadway in “Hollywood Arms” and “Noises Off”; in numerous regional theatres; and in film and television productions.
Chicago critics have praised “Race,” the Goodman casting staff and director Chuck Smith, who has sharply paced this powerhouse of language and nuance. Performances run through Feb. 19.