White Guilt

http://www.flickr.com/photos/moriza/ / CC BY-NC 2.0

I went to New York this weekend, among other reasons, to see David Mamet’s latest play, Race, with a bunch of the folks from PostBourgie, and, as it turns out, Racialicious’s Latoya Peterson, who it was such a pleasure to meet. It was good the company was delightful, because the play certainly was not.I’m not sure why Mamet decided to write Race. It’s an exceedingly awkward work, about a law firm composed of a white partner, a black partner, and a young black female associate, who take the case of a wealthy white man accused of raping a young black woman. Some of the play, particularly the brief sections that focus on the dynamics of a firm, have a fine snap to them. There is a wonderful, and obscene line about a preacher who will want to testify in the case.But none of the racial dynamics work whatsoever. First, it’s patently implausible that a black and a white lawyer who have worked together for years would never have taken a case that challenged their racial dynamic before. It also seems basically implausible that they would have developed a totally color-blind relationship. Second, a lot of the dialogue around race is awfully stilted. People declare that white people have nothing to tell black people about race, which is just sort of silly. A white lawyer, when accused of making an affirmative action hire declares that he hired his associate because she has “talent, and that’s exceedingly fucking rare.” Mamet’s argument seems to be that white people bend over backwards for black people, both out of guilt and fear of being called racist, but that they expect those black people to betray them, and still intend to be wounded when they and their generosity is betrayed. And that all black people hate all white people. And that all white people perpetually want to confess and be shriven of their sins towards black people. It’s an ugly and astonishingly unsubtle framework for a racial conversaion, especially one where white ethnicity is dancing around the edges, but is never really addressed. The play’s ideas just felt enormously stale to me, and yet the predominantly white audience ate it up, just as the Times review said they would, as if they felt like they’d been confronted with hard truths. As if attending the play was an act of contrition.It didn’t help that Kerry Washington’s character was both poorly written and exceedingly shrilly performed. James Spader was frequently quite good, I thought. Some of the staging was very interesting: the law office where the events take place is split-level, and Spader’s character is the only one who stays on the lowest level the entire time: the rest of the cast ascends and descends throughout the show. But I don’t particularly understand why Mamet didn’t just write a play about lawyers, which it seems like he had a knack for. Did he need a race play in his body of work? Did he feel guilty about something?