David Mamet has written a blockbuster of play in Race. Since the days of slavery, when the white slave master practiced the midnight integration of rape on his black female slaves, sex and race have been intertwined.
It was intertwined as well in the Jim Crow days when black men, and boys such as Emmett Till, were lynched on the mere allegation they had come too close physically to a white woman.
And, in recent history, after Mike Tyson’s infamous “trial of the century” and Kobe Bryant’s episode in Eagle, Okla., it is almost normal to expect that the person spread-eagled over the police car, especially in cases of sexual assault, is black.
Mamet’s play, about a white “billionaire” named Strickland, accused of raping a black woman, with two black lawyers defending him, puts the racial shoe on the other foot. Now it is a rich, elite, ultrawhite male who is presumed guilty and convicted in the headlines.
Words in Mamet’s play are like swords and in each scene the characters fence with one another. Later, their own words become incriminating evidence that each character views the world based on a set of stereotypes. On the surface, the lawyers, who drive the action, argue over whether they should take the case of the wealthy man who seems guilty as “sin.” But there is a lot of “guilt” to go around.
Mamet uses the play to explore what one of the characters calls “universal guilt” — and shame.
Slavery, as Toni Morrison might say, is America’s original sin. For a white man to rape a black woman harkens back to that era of slavery the same way calling a black man the N-word harkens back to Jim Crow days. For the black female attorney, who presumes that the billionaire is guilty, it is as if she confuses or mixes up the question of white guilt — the collective guilt of white men — and the guilt or innocence of the white defendant she is, in theory, supposed to be defending.
There is also the question of shame. For all his power, the white defendant is overwhelmed by the stigma of being charged with sexual assault. The white man appears to be innocent of the crime but guilty of racism. The relationship with his girlfriend was consensual but exploitative.
Strickland is a kind of Sherman McCoy character. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, McCoy was a “master of the universe.” Strickland is similarly powerful and he misused his power in exploiting his so-called “girlfriend” for sex: He paid her with “gifts” and “loans.” The line between sexual assault and exploitation of the black woman, whom Strickland clearly stereotypes as a black whore, is not so clear.
Mamet, in many ways, is like a highbrow Tyler Perry. He delights in cutting through the surface to the dark, nitty-gritty of the sins and low motives people try to hide. No one is spared. The media is not objective, Mamet seems to say; it is only interested in envy and conflict. Lawyers are predatory creatures — sharks? —who don’t care about justice; they care about winning and getting paid. And they are willing to use smoke and mirrors to do it. “I think all people are stupid. Blacks are not exempt,” says Jack, the white lead attorney for the firm. So Jack focuses on creating a spectacle to convince the jury to forget the evidence.
To these issues of guilt and shame Mamet adds the corruption of justice. The case turns on whether the white man ripped off his black girlfriend’s dress or she took it off. It was a red sequined dress. The sequins would fall off easily. If he ripped it off, the sequins would be everywhere. In the initial report, there were no missing sequins anywhere.
But the female black lawyer tips off prosecutors about the hole in their report and, magically, a new page materializes: The investigating officer left it in his coat pocket.
In one of Mel Gibson’s films, one of the characters makes a comment, that captures Mamet’s take on guilt and innocence. He says, “It’s not what it is, it is never what it is. It is what it can be made to appear.” This seems to be the final takeaway of the play.
The play is riveting and bears witness to a fact that race and sex are still intimately intertwined in our minds and our social lives.
Donald Jones is professor of Law at the University of Miami. He may be reached at DJones@Law.miami.edu
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: David Mamet’s Race
WHEN: Through Aug. 5: 8 p.m., Thursday-Saturday; 2 and
7 p.m., Sunday
WHERE: Gables Stage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables
COST: Individual tickets range from $37.50 to $42.50
BOX OFFICE: 305-445-1119.