'AN ALLEY FIGHT' Swan, Armstrong, Daniel, and McGuirk. [Photo by Mark Turek]
It's inarguable that to some extent racism in America is a disease that the civil rights era did not completely inoculate this country against. The argument is about exactly what that extent has been, and David Mamet's provocative play Race explores that matter with fulminating energy and some insight. Being unleashed by the Ocean State Theatre Company (through April 14), the production is a qualified success that keeps us riveted from start to finish.
Two lawyers are presented with a case that would be dangerous to lose: a wealthy white man has been accused by a black woman of rape.
The accused, Charles Strickland (Sean McGuirk), has come to them because one lawyer is white, Jack Lawson (Christopher Swan), and the other is black, Henry Brown (Damron Russel Armstrong). As a bonus for jury sympathy, their Ivy League law clerk Susan (Nakeisha Daniel) also is black.
The office we are in, location unspecified, has enough class to help clients feel they are in competent hands (thanks to scenic designer Kimberly V. Powers). Good art on the walls, bottles of Fuji water on hand to rehydrate anybody sweating in nervous guilt.
The lawyers don't want to take the case, since in a manner of speaking they can't win even if they do win. Get Strickland off and the public perception will be that once again some wealthy white guy trampled the rights of some poor black person. Allow him to be convicted and, well, that just isn't allowed for a law firm in such a prominent case. Reluctantly, because of an error by their clerk, they have to represent him.
Strickland very much wants them to believe he's not guilty. When he declares that he is innocent, Lawson breaks the bad news to him: "Nobody fucking cares."
He tells Strickland that all that matters is his vindication. Lawson goes on about not just the elusiveness of truth but the unlikeliness of ever determining it. "There are no facts of the case," he says. "There are two fictions. Which the opposing teams each seek to impress upon the jury." The law, in his professional opinion, is "an alley fight."
He's practical as well as cynical, saying, "Belief, sir, hamstrings the advocate, who is then anchored to the facts."
Lawson's black partner, Henry Brown, gets to open the play with a litany of stereotypical racial/racist truisms, to Strickland: "You want to tell me about black folks? I'll help you: O.J. was guilty. Rodney King was in the wrong place, but the police have the right to use force. Malcolm X was noble when he renounced violence. Prior to that he was misguided. Dr. King was, of course, a saint."
That's worth quoting at length because it echoes Mamet's reductionistic attitude toward race and racism presented here. If you tell me I'm confusing his attitude with that of his characters, I'll point out that the conventional wisdom that racial harmony is possible through mutual tolerance and understanding gets no expression here except to dismiss it as naïve.