David Mamet’s Race at Canadian Stage

Jason Priestley, Cara Ricketts and Nigel Shawn Williams in Race.

By Denise Balkissoon

This is a Toronto blog, and here’s my Toronto take on Race: America is weird. After seeing last night’s premiere of David Mamet’s play (starring, yes, Jason Priestley), my main thought was that we really need to do a Canada vs. USA issue of the Ethnic Aisle, and examine how very differently the two countries experience race and ethnicity. The literal black/white dichotomy of American race politics is always curious to me. It’s not surprising that the Atlantic slave trade has such an enduring legacy on just about every single way Americans look at everything. But at the same time it seems strange that a play debuted in 2009 makes just an offhand mention of one immigrant, and barely flicks at the ever-changing, multifaceted view of race and ethnicity that is my Toronto-born view of the topic, and the world.

I’m fascinated with the ways that race and class and gender inform how we construct our ideas of how things work. The subject of this play is how these issues unfold in the criminal justice sphere–a rich white man has been accused of raping a black woman, and a partnership of white and black lawyers must decide whether to represent him. It’s touchy territory, ripe for discussion of assumptions and stereotypes and morality. I don’t think the play makes it all the way there.

All of the characters just seemed mad all the time–the two lawyers who supposedly respect each other enough to start a practice together didn’t seem to have a particular history or friendship. Dissecting the shame instilled by racism was interesting: how that shame creates distrust, and dread, and calcifies the kneejerk actions and behaviours that we’d all like to be better than. But those moments were sparse, dotted between a series of predictable stand-up comedy jabs (black people are like this, and white people are like this). Race and racism makes people vulnerable, and that would have been more revelatory to witness. Instead, there was a lot of shouting and a whole a torrent of n-words with a b-word or two thrown in for good measure. I’m not a priss, it’s just that it was predictable, not shocking.

Mainly, for a play that was trying to be fresh and provocative about race, it still had the straight white male experience as its core. But maybe that’s just a Toronto opinion.

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5 thoughts on “David Mamet’s Race at Canadian Stage

  1. I saw Race this week too…it was an interesting play but I kept thinking “This is really American.” You’re right, everyone seemed mad all the time. There was no subtlety — every five minutes, it kinda screamed, “This play has a MESSAGE!” And basically everyone lived up to their worst expectations of each other…maybe the message is more about misanthropy than race relations?

  2. Ha, so true, about hitting us over the head that there was a MESSAGE we should tune in for. Also typical: the play is about a woman of colour who is assaulted, but who we never hear from, at all. Her assault is the device that moves the play along, but her character doesn’t really exist as a human being.

  3. I am a D.balkissoon supporter. I try to read anything she writes. I think this time she missed the mark. Its not so much the inclusion or lack thereof of the ‘immigrant’ experience that indicates the American vs Canadian experience. The systematic racism exists in both countries. By and large Canadians choose to believe that is not the case. The numbers don’t support that belief. That’s the only difference.

    • Last point. I had a twitter convo with @septembrea regarding why she isn’t a feminist. She said feminism is for white women – among other strong and accurate statements. A woman who describes her self as a feminist in her twitter bio chimed in that our convo was a ‘facinating perspective’, was ‘new to her’, and she ‘appreciated the honesty’. Her reply is quite typical in Toronto in my experience. I mean really. How the fuck this is a new perspective and new in 2013?

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