The good news is that Chicago theaters are trying to grapple with the issue of race this season (so much, by the way, for the notion that America would somehow become “post-racial” after the election of President Obama). The bad news is that failed efforts on the topic tend to reinforce stereotypes, leaving audience members more firmly entrenched than ever in the positions they held when they walked in the theater.
And there’s every possibility that what I have to say about three recent onstage attempts to deal with race and racism reflects nothing more than my being more firmly entrenched than ever in my original position. Nonetheless:
David Mamet's Race at the Goodman is a clever meditation on euphemisms, and would make a very good essay on that subject. It's not, however, much of a play: Act I addresses the question of whether a wealthy white man raped a black woman, whereas Act II focuses on whether a junior black woman lawyer betrayed her white male supervisors. I can see there's supposed to be a parallel of betrayal here, but it doesn't work. Instead we have a play without a plot, or characters, really (they're embodied positions and prejudices instead). Chuck Smith's direction is true to the scripts: He makes each of the performances as hard-edged and un-nuanced as it can possibly be, so that Mamet's point is clear as day. And he gives due emphasis to the best line in the play. Apparently cleared of betrayal, the young woman chides her superiors: "The silver spoon disappeared and you fired the maid." The rest of the dialog just replaces Mamet's well-known penchant for profanity with racial and sexual epithets, and this does not constitute progress. It just seems like the kid in school who got laughs by saying "doody-head." Not Mamet's finest hour.
Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar at American Theater Company does even less to turn ideas into characters, and while its plot structure is clearer than Mamet’s double-helix construction the clarity serves only to reveal how formulaic it is. I wasn’t offended by the portrayal of the characters because I didn’t believe in any of them, and I certainly didn’t believe in their interactions. A very lapsed Muslim lawyers is married to a white artist preoccupied with Islamic art. His law partner (a black woman) is married to her agent (a Jewish man). Ostensibly, these couples are close friends, but they sit down to dinner and discuss race, ethnicity, religion and prejudice as if they’d never considered or discussed these issues before, and the results of this single conversation are so devastating that our protagonist reverts to his religious Muslim roots and beats his wife unconscious. Once again, the director–-in this case Kimberly Senior–-does what she can with the material, and the actors are obviously making earnest efforts to turn these puppets into people, but what we’re left with is either a set of hideous stereotypes–-the greedy Jew, the animalistic brown man, and so on–-or a sense that the entire issue is insoluble and therefore not worth talking about. I doubt this was the playwright’s intention.
It may be that the difficulty with both plays is that they’re too short: Disgraced runs 90 minutes and Race just a bit more than 100. Each seems to suffer from the absence of scenes which might have enlarged the characters or better explained the internal dynamics of the groups being examined. Jonathan and I will discuss the costs and benefits of this recent trend towards bare-bones plays on 848 next Friday, February 17.
On the other hand, Time Stands Still at Steppenwolf manages to offer caricatures in lieu of characters despite having two full acts and an all-white cast. Playwright Donald Margulies seems to want to tell us the story of white war correspondents who (depending on your perspective) draw necessary attention to or leach off of the suffering of black and brown people around the world; but no sooner has he raised this issue than he shifts his focus to male-female relationships, or rather to the ways in which a Good Woman puts husband and children ahead of everything and a Bad Woman thinks about other things. Bright career woman Sarah turns out to be incapable of love, while dim-bulb stay-at-home mom Mandy turns out to represent all that is good and true in the world. This is a fantasy characteristic of middle-aged Jewish men but I’m sorry to encounter it in Margulies, who is a throughtful and skilled playwright when he’s not busy grinding an axe against feminism. Austin Pendleton might have gotten more humor out of the script but the cast, led by Sally Murphy, does fine work. The problem is the play itself, which seems like a box of Crackerjack without a prize: enjoyable while it’s going on but ultimately empty and completely disposable. Suffice it to say I saw the original production in New York with Laura Linney and didn’t remember that fact until a few key gestures triggered my memory. This makes sense: Why remember the umpteenth iteration of a stereotype?