“Race,” by David Mamet, staged at the Haifa Theater and directed by its artistic director Moshe Naor, is a good play. It could even be called a very good play. It looks great: The lighting by Eran Atzmon reveals to the audience a meeting room at a lawyer’s office of the sort we have become accustomed to seeing on American legal TV shows.
Two lawyers are in the meeting room, dressed in black suits. One of them is a white man named Jack Lawson (as in “son of the law”). He is played by Rami Heuberger, who is eloquent, witty, direct, without illusions, and who clearly enjoys being the “entertainer who puts on a better show,” (as Mamet, in the excellent translation by Yosef Al-Dror, describes the lawyer who wins the case and the compensation for his client). And Heuberger does indeed give an excellent performance.
His business partner is called Henry (Hank) Brown. Brown is black and the politically incorrect choice of words isn’t mine, rather that of the playwright and the characters. And this issue the words we use when we talk about race is the subject of the play. Brown is played by Norman Issa, an Arab actor in a brilliant piece of casting. His appearance fits the purposes of the role without the need for makeup, and the fact that he is of a different ethnicity to Heuberger speaks for itself (but doesn’t shout). In addition, his stage presence radiates confidence, and I doubt there are many Israeli actors who sound so natural and flowing in their stage Hebrew.
A young, beautiful black woman named Susan is a new addition to the firm. She was hired by Lawson against his partner’s judgment and the points of view provided by her gender and ethnicity are important to the plot, as Lawson uses them as an acid test for his postulations. Her position in the office is equally important, as is the question of whether she was hired due to her professional merit or because of affirmative action. She is played by the young Ester Rada, in one of her first dramatic roles. Like Issa, Rada looks the part: she is of Ethiopian origin, though she was born in Israel, and is Israeli by any measure.
The fourth actor, Sharon Alexander, plays Charles Strickland the character bringing the “case” to the stage. Blonde, and the embodiment of the Israeli Ashkenazi, Alexander plays a wealthy white man who is accused of raping a black woman in a hotel room. And his problem, as Brown explains to him in a characteristically direct manner is that: “The legal process, Charles, is only about three things hatred, fear or envy. And you just hit the trifecta.”
Mamet’s play is a concentrated, effective and poisonous attack on political correctness, and the affirmative action which has been something which is taken for granted in the American public climate. And again, it is Brown who explains to his client (Alexander is excellent at depicting the confused embarrassment of the white man in this age) the facts as they stand, black on white. Charles: “I didn’t do anything.”
Henry: “You’re white.”
Charles: “Is that a crime?”
Henry: “In this instance.”
Charles: “You’re kidding.”
Henry: “Sadly I am not.”
Charles (to Henry): “Do you care that I’m white?”
Henry: “Do I hate white folks?” Z’at your question? “Do all black people hate whites?” Let me put your mind at rest. You bet we do. White folks are ‘scared?’ All to the good. You understand? We’re thrilled you’re guilty.” Charles: “I’m guilty.”
Charles: “Because I’m white.”
Henry: “No. Because of the calendar. Fifty years ago. You’re white? Same case. Same facts. You’re innocent. This is the situation. In which you discover yourself. ... I’m telling you the truth. Your people, if they were assured by God, that you were innocent, would sell you out.”
This play of Mamet’s undermines the sense of calm felt by the white liberal classes convinced that they had internalized the lessons learned from the many years of oppression: of blacks by whites, of the poor by the rich, and of women by men. It may be true that the legal case at the center of the play is the question of whether the white, rich client raped the poor, black woman (which he did, apparently). But a no less important part of Mamet’s plot is the question of whether Lawson used affirmative action in hiring Susan, and to what degree he is suppressing his own racism. A question that every sensitive viewer should ask himself at the end of the play is whether Lawson himself isn’t raping in a metaphorical sense, of course his new recruit before our very eyes; and no less seriously, that he is unaware that this is what he is doing. Ostensibly, Lawson actually understands that he harmed and is harming her. He tries to apologize, and even develops for this purpose the initial argument of his partner: “There is nothing. A white person. Can say to a black person. About Race. Which is not both incorrect and offensive. Nothing. I know that. Race. Is the most incendiary topic in our history. And the moment it comes out, you cannot close the lid on that box. That may change. But not for a long long while.”
A twisted sort of justice
The person who puts Lawson in his place and teaches him that even though he has no illusions when it comes to people, law, and justice, race and gender, he doesn’t understand anything despite the fact that Lawson thinks he is already in the post-politically correct age is once again Brown: “You think, Jacky, you are immune. Because you understand the problem. What you don’t see is, that, to her, you are the problem. And you’re so fucking proud of yourself. For not making a pass at her, for “respecting” her as a “human being,” that you do not see, this ungrateful little girl, looking at me, and in her eyes, “where is your watermelon.” While her privileged, Affirmative Action self is here on a pass, Jack, on a motherfucking pass. Which you gave her. However smart she is. I would be mortified, to go through life, thinking that I’d received a dispensation because of my race. And I am ashamed of her that she is not.”
The client’s fault in this whole affair seems to us a secondary matter, for Lawson (and Brown too) know that what counts in court isn’t justice, but appearances and the manipulative maneuvers that lawyers make on the members of the jury. In terms of the play’s plot, there are the seemingly “good” characters (the two lawyers) and the “bad” ones (the accused client even if he is not initially willing to admit to his crime and the new addition to the firm, who is “cheating” on the employers who trusted her, taking advantage of the benefits provided by affirmative action, and obstructing the case).
But this is exactly where Mamet displays his uniqueness as a brilliant playwright: Susan is the only character who, throughout the whole play, works to ensure that the real culprit, the rapist, will be punished. And all the rest is legal wrangling and emotional debate.
Ultimately, affirmative action is not much more than a flimsy plaster covering the open wound of the inability of people to accept their fellow man the way they are. And it may be positive discrimination, but it is still discrimination. And differences in race, gender and standing are facts, and what affects the relationships between people, genders, classes and races, more than anything else, are guilt and shame, two of Mamet’s strong themes. You go to watch an enthralling, satisfying and entertaining play, and afterwards are left with an unresolved issue an issue that can’t be solved in your imagination and your memory. It’s hard to ask for more from a play.