British Get a Dose of Race in America

David Mamet's incendiary play about racism offers compelling lessons to those across the pond.

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Actors Charles Daish, Nina Touissaint-White and Clarke Peters in the London production of Race (Hampstead Theatre)

(The Root) -- The other night I went to see Race, by Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright David Mamet at London's Hampstead Theatre. The play is a profoundly intelligent, visceral and highly incendiary legal drama that deftly skewers, mercilessly punctures and audaciously lacerates its audience with a crushingly pessimistic assessment of the place of race in 21st-century America.

The play opened to considerable critical acclaim on Broadway, with Kerry Washington, in December 2009, and I was excited to see the United Kingdom premiere of this new production and to ascertain if a play so firmly rooted in one country's traumatic history and its concomitant toxic racial legacy would travel well.

Ostensibly about a racist, white patrician (played by Charles Daish) who is accused of raping a black woman and then calculatingly hires a black lawyer to defend him, the play derives its real drama not from the is-he-or-isn't-he-guilty? motif but from the racially motivated machinations, trenchant verbal jousting and psychologically revealing exchanges between the black lawyer, his white partner and their young, sassy, black female junior partner.

In addition to being a searing critique of American justice, Race tackles head-on the eponymous elephant in the room, skillfully articulating the gargantuan place that race continues to occupy in the contemporary American psyche, all in deliberately uncompromising, straight-for-the-jugular language. Any play that contains the words "f--k," "nigger" and "bitch" in one sentence is clearly out to demolish linguistic and cultural touchstones and decimate liberal pieties. Mindful of W.E.B. Du Bois' famous assertion that race was the defining problem of the 20th century, Mamet argues that we still have a long way to go before the debilitating preconceptions of racism cease to permeate our collective consciousness.

Some feel that Mamet's dazzling wordplay is, on closer inspection, merely tedious sophistry and that his characters conspicuously lack emotional depth and are simply ciphers for his ideas, but on this occasion, I felt otherwise.

In this incisive production, the relentless verbal sparring between Clarke Peters' cynical, world-wise black lawyer and his eloquently Machiavellian white partner, played by Jasper Britton, is mesmeric. Likewise, Nina Toussaint-White is utterly convincing as the sexy, recalcitrant, Ivy League-educated black legal assistant, whose own righteous racial prejudices succeed in undermining her professionalism and result in the play's unexpected denouement.

However, the majority-white audience's strident laughter was disconcerting, seemingly stemming from a belief that, since the U.K.'s racial history is not as problematic or emotionally charged as in the United States, it thereby countenances guilt-free mirth. Yet the British must be careful that such a distancing from America's racial problems does not lead to complacency about their own racial struggles or the usual self-congratulatory backslapping so often prevalent among the bien-pensant, metropolitan, liberal elite.

In the recent aftermath of the Woolwich atrocity -- which, thankfully, saw few, if any, reprisals against British-born Nigerians -- it would be easy to praise London for its ostensibly more progressive, nuanced and, on the whole, harmonious attitude toward race when juxtaposed with Mamet's nihilistic (albeit, some would say, accurate) assessment of racial interaction in America.

But here's the rub: Sadly, as almost always tends to be the case on such theatrical occasions here in London, there was an abysmal dearth of faces of color in the audience. I managed to count a total of five -- three of whom I knew by name -- not counting my friend and me.

In a variegated, multicultural metropolis like London -- a city that purports to be truly cosmopolitan -- this is doubly shameful, especially given the play's title and subject matter. Not only is this a human tragedy -- great theater should not be the sole preserve of any one race or class -- but it also highlights in a microcosm the underlying problem here in the U.K.: the painfully small (nascent, if you are feeling charitable) black British middle class.