Riveting ‘Race’ Pursues Victory and Perception, Not Truth and Justice

In the law offices (beautifully designed by Bryan McAdams) of Jack Lawson and Henry Brown, Charles Strickland, a rich, white man, seeks counsel to defend him of the charge of raping a black woman.  The two attorneys could care less about his guilt or innocence.  Their decision to take on this client will be based solely on whether or not they believe the case is winnable.  When a careless (or is it?) error is made by their law clerk, compelling the two lawyers to defend Strickland, we are taken into a world driven by personal and societal biases.  This is David Mamet’s Race currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Race is compelling drama at its finest.  From the moment the heavy drum beats signal the start of the show, this play takes off like a rocket and goes full throttle until the very end.  I was absolutely mesmerized by the astonishing pace of the production.  These four expert storytellers picked up cues so tightly and effortlessly that one barely had time to think and digest the information before another revelation was made.  With the superlative acting enhanced by brilliantly constructed, crisp dialogue and further bolstered by whip smart directing from Amy Lane, you’re going to get one thought provoking, challenging night of entertainment.

Doug Blackburn’s tour de force performance as Jack Lawson is worth the price of admission alone.  Putting on a veritable acting clinic, Blackburn finds beats within beats and has crafted the most fully developed and real character I have seen on stage in years.  Lawson is neither a good man nor a bad man.  He is a lawyer.  He doesn’t, no, he can’t care about his client’s guilt or innocence.  Lawson’s job is to win, plain and simple and he will do whatever it takes to obtain victory.  In Lawson’s view, trials are won by the lawyer who tells the better story, not who has the truth on their side.

Through Blackburn’s masterful storytelling, we see a man who is deeply cynical, thinks ten steps ahead, and chases down every angle to obtain a not guilty verdict.  Yet he may have made one crucial miscalculation when his fear of being sued for discrimination dictated he hire a black law clerk who, though talented, may not have the firm’s best interests at heart.

As Henry Brown, Lawson’s legal partner and a black man, Andre McGraw is more than able to keep pace with Blackburn’s Lawson.  Nearly as cynical and more distrusting than his white partner, McGraw’s Brown has little respect for their client, believing him to have sought their aid because of the multicultural build of the law firm.  Brutally honest, Brown coldly lays out to Strickland that his color will already make him guilty in the eyes of a jury and he would prefer to drop the case.  When forced to defend him, Brown suggests a defense that will be a little lackluster for the client, but would preserve the image of the law firm in order to obtain future clients.  Though he plays it intensely for the most part, McGraw does have some beautiful, softer moments in his private conversations with Blackburn.

As Susan, a newly hired law clerk, Jonnique Peters gives a stunningly enigmatic performance.  Up until the very end you never really know what she is thinking.  At first, she seems like the bright-eyed, optimistic, fresh out of law school lawyer who is going to pursue truth, justice, and the American way.  But as the play progresses, you will find that there may be a much darker side to Susan.  Her thirst for justice may or may not compel her to commit some highly unethical acts.

Brennan Thomas gets as much mileage as he can out of the role of the accused.  As Strickland, Thomas gives a haunting portrayal of a man who insists he has been falsely accused, yet feels great shame about something.  His Strickland is more of a hindrance than a help to his lawyers as he constantly wishes to go to the press so he can explain his side of the story.  As it happens, he may have quite a bit to explain.

What I truly loved about this play is that Strickland’s guilt or innocence is not important to the plot.  Race is really what this play is all about.  Every action in this play is either driven by race or the perception of race.  Brown believes Strickland will be found guilty by the simple fact he’s a wealthy white man accused of raping a black woman.  Lawson won’t accuse the accuser of being a whore because “she’s black and [he’d] be impugning her sexuality”.  Susan just knows Strickland is guilty.  It strongly suggests that as hard as we, as a society, try to downplay the issue of race, our biases will always make it a reality that cannot be ignored.  You will think when this show ends and that’s what great theatre should make you do.

Race runs at the Omaha Playhouse, located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE, from May 9-June 8.  Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  There is no performance on May 17, but an extra performance will be held on June 4 at 7:30pm.  Tickets are $35 ($21 for students).  For tickets, contact the Playhouse at 402-553-0800.  Race contains strong language and adult subject matter and is not recommended for children.