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'Race' is an awkward but necessary conversation

Lawrence Pierce
Playwright David Mamet's provocative play, "Race," opens up a dialogue about race and racial relations. It stars (from left) Russell Hicks, Tim Mace, Belen Abdulqadir and Norman Clerc.

WANT TO GO?

"Race" by Charleston Stage Company

WHERE: Capitol Center Theater, 123 Summers St.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today though Saturday and May 30-June 1

TICKETS: Adults $15, students and seniors $10

INFO: 304-343-5272 or www.charlestonstagecompany.comCHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sometimes, good entertainment can be uncomfortable, and Joe Wallace, who directs the Charleston Stage Company's production of David Mamet's "Race," wants the audience to squirm in their seats a little.

"We're doing some heavy material here," he said. "But Mamet set out to have a discussion with the audience and give them something to talk about afterward." 

The show, which opens today at the Capitol Center Theater, revolves around two attorneys -- one black (Russell Hicks) and one white (Tim Mace), who have been hired to defend a white man (Norman Clerc), who is accused of having raped a young black woman.

"[My character] Jack is like a lot of attorneys, I think," Mace said. "He just wants to get his client off, found not guilty. The truth doesn't really matter to him, which I think is the case with a lot of attorneys."

 Added to the mix is a newly hired legal assistant named Susan, played by first-time actress Belen Abdulqadir, a young black female who, Wallace said, may have her own agenda.

The play, which features Mamet's sharp dialogue, explores racial tensions both above and below the surface. It's meant to be a frank discussion on how different people perceive the subject of race, how they see themselves and how they see the other side. It also looks at how race might be viewed in the context of the legal system.

"It's kind of a potboiler and whodunnit," Mace said.

There's also quite a bit of comedy, he added.

"Jack has a lot of funny things to say, but they're sort of funny-ironic."

And some of the things he has to say aren't especially funny at all.

Wallace said in order to get the audience where he wanted with "Race," he had to get his actors there first, and he wanted them nice and uncomfortable, which wasn't easy. Three of his actors are local theater regulars, some of them with dozens of plays under their belt.

"I was fortunate enough to get four people who were very comfortable with who they are," he said and laughed. "So I had to work a little bit."

Mace, for example, had to be pushed to become comfortable (or at least comfortable sounding) uttering the dreaded N-word.

Wallace said, "It was really uncomfortable for him because that word isn't normally in Tim's vocabulary."

Mace, who seems like a pretty mild-mannered guy, agreed. Using racial epithets isn't something he's ever done. It wasn't even something he heard in the house he grew up in, and the word makes him almost queasy.

Still, as hard as it was to have to say the word, it was harder to make it sound natural coming out of his mouth.

"I had to repeat it over and over," he said. "It sounds ridiculous, but the way you do that is you tell yourself, this isn't me. I'm not him."

The play is supposed to encourage a dialogue about race, and Mace said it's already done that. At rehearsals, the actors have frequently discussed their own thoughts and experiences.

Wallace said, "No one likes to talk about race. It's an uncomfortable subject -- unless you have an agenda you're trying to push."

Wallace said race isn't necessarily something many people think a lot about in West Virginia.

"It's certainly not our biggest issue," he said. "That, I think, is poverty. But race does come up, and it's something we need to discuss.

"This play is a good way to bring people together to discuss race."

And even if it makes people squirm in their chairs a little (or a lot), Mace and Wallace say it's a good time.

Mace said, "One of my first acting teachers said entertainment doesn't need to be laugh-a-minute. It's a willful occupation of the mind. This is a play that will keep you engaged, keep you thinking, and I think that's good, too."

 "Heavy can be a hard sell," Wallace added. "But we're hoping people come out anyway."

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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