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.

What Do I See?

A short while ago, I wrote an article on the power of perception which discussed the idea that how actors are seen dictates if and how they are cast.  I’ve said that an actor exerts very little control over this aspect of the business and that is certainly true.  But how an actor perceives himself or herself certainly dictates the types of roles she or he pursues.
Some actors only see themselves as leading characters and will only accept a role of that type.  Others may prefer the sidekick/second banana role.  Still more may be willing to accept a role of any kind.
When it comes to me, I always seek out the most challenging role.  In my experience, that role is usually something other than the leading role.  So, in a sense, I am probably a character actor, though I think what I pursue is something more than that and somewhat defies a description.
If I were to put it into words, I would call myself a storyteller.  This is why I prefer John Merrick to Frederick Treves, Billy Bibbit to Randall McMurphy, and Renfield to Count Dracula.  I really don’t have a particular taste as I will always look for the role that intrigues me, though I do seem to have a predilection for characters that exhibit great strength of spirit.
Since I view myself as a storyteller, the size of my part does not matter.  I just want the challenge.  If I thought the leading role in a play was the most difficult one, then that is what I would pursue.  If I thought a character with no lines was the most challenging role, then that is the role that I would want.  With the pursuit of the challenge, a wide plethora of roles is available to me.
Not that I will do any role that comes my way.  I have refused roles in the past because I didn’t think they had the difficulty which I seek or just didn’t think myself well suited to the role.  As my abilities as an actor have grown and evolved, I have become a little choosier in what I will do.  For example, at this point in my avocation, the odds of me taking a supernumerary role aren’t particularly high.  Just like in climbing the corporate ladder where you have to work from the bottom up, I believe a role like that needs to go to an inexperienced, untested performer to give her or him a chance to show some grace and aplomb. 
As to my style. . .well, I’d like to consider myself a naturalistic actor.  I try to imagine what I would do if I were to find myself in the same situation that that character does and react accordingly.  Sometimes I think I’m too realistic as I need to work a little harder at being over the top when it comes to farce since my instinct is to play things as believably as I can even when my character may be in the midst of an unbelievable situation.
My perception of how I’m often cast is that directors tend to cast me in characters that seem to reflect my real personality.  Though, over the past few years, I’ve managed to start obtaining roles different to myself such as the loutish drunkard, Eric Birling, in An Inspector Calls and the adult version of Don Browning in Leaving Iowa.  Rest assured, child Don was very much me and probably the most fun I’ve had being me on stage.
And it’s not that I haven’t enjoyed playing the characters who reflect the real me.  I’ve loved them all.  But I’m me every day so I already know I can do that.  In order to continue my growth as an actor, I have to show the sides of me that aren’t seen very much.  This is why I’ll often try a different take on a “me” character to make it a little less “me” when I’m playing that type of role.
When I first got started in this business, I didn’t understand what acting was all about.  I felt I had to feel like I was doing something in order to be acting and this road, unquestionably, led to being perceived as a poor performer.
Along the road I met those who helped me understand that I didn’t have to feel like I was doing something, I just had to do it.  That is what helped me to become a stronger actor over the years.  Learning to trust my instinct and be in the moment also helped me to achieve that truly rare feat of altering perceptions of me as a bad actor.  Mind you, I didn’t consciously set out to do this.  I just did it because I kept trying, working, practicing, and learning.  My conscious goal was simply to get roles.
The theatre season is fully cast and, for the first time in years, I didn’t do a show.  It wasn’t that long ago that I would consider that a failure and the frustration would be weighing on my shoulders like a ton of bricks.  But my perception of me has changed and I now accept myself as a good, capable actor. 
There’ll always be another show.  And I’ll be offering directors all of me which is the only thing I can give.  My instinct.  My effort.  My imagination.  My interpretation.  When it comes to casting me, directors may not always agree with me, but they will know that they got the best me.

The Power of Perception

You nailed that audition to that ground.  Your spirits are in orbit.  There’s no way you’re not going to get that role.  And then you get a form letter thanking you for your time, but you could not be included in this particular production.

“What did I do wrong?” you think to yourself.

Odds are you did nothing wrong.  Consider the following quotations:

“I know you can play formal.”

“As soon as Jonathan Crane showed up on screen, Mat and I looked at each other and said, ‘Couldn’t you see Chris in that role?’”

“You remind me of a young Jimmy Stewart.  You play decent people, finding their way in the world, with a strong, moral center.”

“My perception is that you primarily fall into the category of Character Actor. . . As a character actor, you can come across as likable, but also stiff and a little repressed.  You also seem very controlled, and I don’t sense a lot of spontaneity. You seem most appropriate for someone who gets caught up in the events swirling around them rather than causing the swirling.  You can play both comic and serious, but I suspect that you’re a little stronger at the comic.  You do have the ability to play an “everyman” sort of character, though, and that is helpful.  And you are capable of projecting a certain sense of passion. “

Would it surprise you to learn that the previous quotations were about the same person?

That, in a nutshell, is the power of perception which is probably one of the most critical elements in being cast in a show.  It’s also the element over which you exert the least amount of control.

As auditioners, we all make choices about the characters we’re interested in and/or are asked to play.  Based on those choices and the uncontrollable factors I’ve often mentioned help dictate whether or not you get cast in a play.  But the biggest key to getting cast is how the choices you make and the uncontrollable factors cause the director to perceive you.

You could do the same audition for ten different people and each of those ten people will see something just a little bit different.  Some may think you are just perfect for the role.  Others may think you’re giving a terrible read.  Some may perceive something completely different from what you’re trying to project.  That’s the amazing thing about this business.  The possibilities are absolutely endless.

A few paragraphs back, you read 4 different observations about my own acting.  Not one of those people saw me in exactly the same way.  Each observation is colored not only by what these people have seen me do, but by their knowledge of me as a person.  That is a vital reality to keep in mind.

The first time you audition for a director is the only time you’ll be a tabula rasa (blank slate).  Even then, that might not be the case if you’ve developed a reputation of any kind in the theatre community.  From that first audition any number of things could happen.

Some directors will not cast you.  A few may decide that you fit a certain mold of character and will consider you if, and only if, that type of character is present in the story.  Others will like what they see, but believe you won’t work for this particular show.  There might even be a percentage of people who think you are the greatest thing since sliced bread and want to use you in every show she or he directs.  Heck, as you grow to know them personally, how your real self is perceived may play a heavy part in being included in future projects.

It’s very possible some reading this have grown or will grow frustrated with how they perceive they’re being perceived.  Don’t feel bad about that.  But don’t let the frustration control you either.  As the great writer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, said, “We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing while others judge us by what we have done.”  Just be true to yourself and your visions and, sooner or later, you may change someone’s mind or you’ll find someone who sees things the way that you do.

As I was preparing this article, a friend told me that changing a perception can be a very difficult task.  I completely agree with that sentiment.  I also don’t think it’s something you can consciously set out to do.  What you can do is focus on becoming the best actor that YOU can be.  Get out and audition.  Take a class.  When you watch a play, study it.  Discover what works and doesn’t work and why.  Most importantly, don’t give up.

Self-perception is just as crucial a component because we often become what we perceive, for good or for ill.  Feed yourself with positive thoughts and remember those good thoughts when things seem difficult.  That’s a lesson that’s good for life, not just for the theatre.

The best story I’ve ever heard about the power of positive self-perception was about a man who decided in his thirties to become a professional actor.  In this business, that’s an old age to begin making a go of this line of work.  He enrolled in the Pasadena Playhouse and flunked out with the worst scores in school history.

Determined to succeed, he moved to New York.  One of the jobs he took to make ends meet was as a doorman for a Howard Johnson hotel.  One day one of his teachers from the Pasadena Playhouse passed him as he worked the door.  The teacher recognized him and said, “See.  I said you would never amount to anything.”  The struggling actor later said that incident made him feel about one inch tall.

While he could have quit there and then, he soldiered on.  Ten years later he was the most bankable star in Hollywood.  That man was Gene Hackman.

At the end of the day, be happy.  Sometimes the power of perception will be a great asset and sometimes it will seem like a fierce opponent.  What ultimately matters is how you perceive yourself.  And when you perceive yourself well, you will always win, even if you lose.

Be good to yourself and God bless.