Geneva Anderson digs into art

In David Mamet’s captivating Broadway hit “Race,” a court case involving race and sex causes three lawyers to get real about their own beliefs, at A.C.T. through November 13, 2011

In David Mamet’s “Race,” which has its West Coast premiere at San Francisco’s A.C.T., law firm partners Jack Lawson (A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco, left) and Henry Brown (Chris Butler) discuss whether they should take on a controversial case involving a white man raping a young black woman. Photo by Kevin Berne.

What do you get when you mix three attorneys with a white man accused of raping a black woman?  It all depends.   David Mamet’s  dramedy “Race,” which has its West Coast premiere at San Francisco’s A.C.T.(American Conservatory Theatre), uses a not-so-straightforward scenario of rape to explore the complex world of sexual and racial politics and our discomfort at talking about our deeply held beliefs.  When Jack Lawson (Anthony Fusco), Henry Brown (Chris Butler) and Susan (Susan Heyward) are roped into defending Charles Strickland (Kevin O’Rourke) a wealthy white man who appears to have raped a young black woman in a hotel room, we quickly see how this law firm operates.  Their mandate is to get their client off the hook by whatever legal means available, despite the truth.  Newly-hired associate Susan is most challenged.  As a young black woman, she empathizes with the victim and grows increasingly uncomfortable as a zany defense strategy involving a red sequined dress unfolds, but being new and lowest on the totem pole, she has little power to stand-up directly to her two senior partners.  While the two men spar directly each other about their respective assumptions about racial relations and sex and power dynamics and what may have really unfolded in the case, Susan finds non-verbal ways to assert herself, proving she is not as naïve as she presents.  White versus black; male versus female; privilege versus underprivileged–each character at first seems to conform to certain perceptions but then doesn’t.  Personal convictions and prejudices are road-tested all around by Mamet who also explores the predatory nature of the news media.  

Law firm associate Susan (Susan Heyward) quietly pays close attention to the racially charged case. As the play develops, she proves to be not as naïve as she is presumed to be. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Given Mamet’s track-record for presenting first-rate controversy, “Race” has no real shock impact─it has been upstaged by some of the racially-repugnant language currently on television but it is an entertaining puzzler hat offers a wide platform for exploration of our own deep prejudices.   The 2009 play also has an uncanny applicability to the issues in the highly-publicized case against former International Monetary Fund Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn for allegedly sexually assaulting a New York hotel maid in May of this year.  The shift in that case came when the Manhattan County District Attorney’s office disclosed in a letter to the defense team that the accuser admitted to lying on her 2004 asylum application and subsequent lies were then revealed.  Separating out and isolating issues relevant to the case at hand became part of a legal and media extravaganza and personal biases and projections were intentionally whipped up.  In rape cases, it seemed that one needed to be the near perfect victim, whereas, the friends, family, and supporters of the accused, a man of great wealth and power, argued that he was a certainly seducer but not a rapist.  Justice was a game that was to be played out and the truth was something else.  

Law firm associate Susan (Susan Heyward) and law firm partners Jack Lawson (Anthony Fusco, left) and Henry Brown (Chris Butler, second from right) prep their wealthy client Charles Strickland (Kevin O’Rourke) for questioning at A.C.T. through November 13, 2011. Photo by Kevin Berne.

At the end of the first act of “Race,” lawyers Lawson and Susan are debating the Strickland case when Susan tells Lawson, “This isn’t about sex. It’s about race.”

“What’s the difference,” Lawson asks. “It’s a complicated world, full of misunderstandings. That’s why we have lawyers.”  “Race” explores what’s at the heart of our biases and the world of sin that attorney-client privilege can hide.  At 90 minutes, without intermission, with a four member cast, and all set in a law firm’s conference room, it is one the best productions in A.C.T.’s recent history.  Alert: intentionally coarse language.  

Cast: Anthony Fusco as partner Jack Lawson; Chris Butler as partner Henry Brown; Susan Heyward as associate Susan; Kevin O’Rourke as wealthy client

Directed by Irene Lewis; scenery by Chris Barreca; costumes by Candice Donnelly; Lighting by Rui Rita; Sound design by Cliff Caruthers

“Experts Talks Back” special post-show discussions:  Delve deeply into the issues raised by “Race” with legal and cultural specialists leading discussions about many of the provocative topics that percolate throughout the production:

Friday, October 28, 2011, following the 8 p.m. performance:  Regina Arnold, a former rock critic who teaches at Stanford University, leads a discussion about race and ethnicity in today’s popular culture, moderated by Edward Budworth, A.C.T.’s groupsales and student matinee representative.

• Thursday, November 3, 2011, following the 8 p.m. performance:  Mary McNamara, a white collar criminal defense lawyer who was named one of the top 50 women lawyers in Northern California, leads a discussion moderated by Patrick S. Thompson, a partner at Goodwin Procter and a member of A.C.T.’s Board of Trustees.

• Thursday, November 10, 2011, following the 8 p.m. performance:  Wilda L. White, executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley School of Law, and Jennifer Madden, deputy district attorney in Alameda County, lead a discussion moderated by Patrick S. Thompson, a partner at Goodwin Procter and a member of A.C.T.’s Board of Trustees. 

Admission to all Experts Talk Back events is free with a ticket to Race; the discussions will take place in Fred’s Columbia Room on the lower level of the American Conservatory Theater (415 Geary Street, San Francisco).

Details:  The West Coast premiere of “Race” runs through November 13, 2011; tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at

October 28, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment