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Saturday, 07 November 2009 11:14

Feature: A Conversation with the Cast of Mamet's RACE

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James Spader
James Spader at the Race blogger event.

When David Mamet’s play Oleanna opened in 1992 it caused fights to break out between audience members taking one character’s side or the other.  It looks like Mr. Mamet may be at it again.  The play is Race and it’s not about triathlon runners or NASCAR, it’s about race.  The production, and I presume Mr. Mamet are mum about the exact plot line but this is what we know from Mamet’s recent article in the New York Times.  “In my play a firm made up of three lawyers, two black and one white, is offered the chance to defend a white man charged with a crime against a black young woman. It is a play about lies.”  (NY Times)  Mamet argues that our country has never had a period where it wasn’t talking about race.  But in case anyone doubts it he’s here to pour a little fuel on the fire. 

Broadway bloggers were invited recently to meet the cast of Race. The cast includes: Richard Thomas, celebrating his 51st year on Broadway (he made his Broadway debut at the age of 7 as a replacement in Sunrise at Campobello); the strikingly beautiful Kerry Washington (Ray)in her Broadway debut;  the cast clown David Alan Grier (Dreamgirls) and James Spader,  familiar to television viewers as Alan Shore in the David E. Kelley dramady “Boston Legal.”


The cast told us point blank at the top that they weren’t going to be telling us the plot of the play or the exact crime that takes place during the course of the play.  Despite this, we managed to have an intelligent conversation about their experiences working on the premiere of a David Mamet play.  The one problem they have in being patently quiet about the plot line is building up a sense of anticipation that might or might not live up to the hype. 

Richard Thomas at the Race blogger event.

Not always, but frequently a new Broadway play will be given a tryout in either a regional theatre or a road house in some large metropolitan area.  Mr. Mamet has chosen to make the world premiere of his new play at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, straight to Broadway.  Obviously this puts more pressure on, and necessitates more work on the part of the director and the writer.  In this case both of them happen to be Mr. Mamet himself. 

When asked if the play was “frozen” yet the cast agreed that Mamet was still working on the play, not in a major way but in syllabic increments.  Thomas said “we spent the first seven days at the table and we’re still changing quite a bit.”  If you know Mamet, you know that his plays are about the words, the precise words.  “It is precise, it is exacting and you can’t be off by a syllable” said Thomas. 

In a particularly enlightening moment we learn how Mamet the director handles that role.  He tells Thomas “forget the pauses, forget the periods, just say it, I’ll figure it out.”  It’s reassuring to actors when they have a director like that.  And in case they had any questions about the words, lucky for them the author just happened to be there as well.  It becomes apparent that Mamet fosters a safe place for actors to explore in the rehearsal process.  “There’s a great sense of play and a great sense of fun in the process and it’s not fraught or tense, it’s marvelous” said Thomas.

As to the “controversy,” Kerry Washington’s mother asked her if an elderly relative should see the play.  She responded half in jest saying “she should see her cardiologist first.”  Washington goes on to say that there are four very distinct characters in the play, each of whom views the situation differently.  The questions the audience members will be asking when they leave will depend upon whose viewpoint they felt most closely aligned with and who they felt was telling the truth.  The play is, after all about lies according to Mamet. 

I asked the actors how their feelings about race may have been affected; did they discover anything new about themselves?  Kerry Washington recalled a recent day at rehearsal when she must have had an unhappy look on her face.  David Alan Grier came over and hugged her.  “I had heard one particular phrase one too many times,” she said. 

During one of the many humorous moments, another blogger asked if they were getting to “curse it up.”    Thomas responded that they were but “I, however, have only one fuck.”  Grier pointed out that’s because he’s married.  The room cracked up.

David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington
David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington at the Race blogger event.

The conversation moved to what drew these actors to this play.  James Spader, responded “It’s funny and it’s not funny, it’s brutal and yet there’s a soft underbelly to it that’s vulnerable and dangerously so.  I like that.  The stakes are very high.  He likes to raise the stakes and then raise them again.”  He compared his last job, working on “Boston Legal” to working in a factory.  In his words, “a factory, a great factory, but a factory none-the-less.”  He was referring to the volume of material and the long days of shooting.  With Race he’s looking forward to relaxing into the run, growing with it and actually having a personal life for a change. 

I asked the cast if there was going to be an intermission.  Spader responded drolly “We’re moving rapidly and fairly decisively towards two pauses,” the room cracks up.  I asked him this because I was curious if they thought folks would walk out.  After I asked the question I thought, this is Mamet, what a stupid fucking question, of course people will walk out.  Grier said “I did ‘The Wiz’ at La Jolla, people walked out of that.”  Once again, the room erupted.  How is this man going to do a drama, he can’t stop being funny.

Race begins previews on Monday, November 16 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and opens officially on Sunday, December 6.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 10 November 2009 00:07