The Mississippi by John Steuart Curry, 1935

The comedian, Chris Rock, once joked about Black History Month. He complained that the shortest month of year had been picked, February. Weather-wise, February was also the worst month of the year. Rock’s complaint was that with twelve months to choose from, why did black people end up with the shortest and most dismal one. This year at least, Black History Month was granted an extra day. If Black History Month was allotted the maximum thirty-one day, then yesterday would have been February, 31st, instead of March 2nd. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume the former, and grant this amateur blogger one more day of grace to write this up. Last night, we went to see The Rep’s production of David Mamet’s play, “Race”.

Mamet is a connoisseur of four-letter words, but when it comes to the four-letter word, race, I prefer another David, David Blight. He is a Yale professor and author, and is on an iTunes U lecture series about the Civil War; he is my preferred instructor on the subject of race. Mamet’s white lead states that there is nothing that a white person can say to a black person about race. According to Blight that hasn’t stopped white people for the last 150 plus years from trying. Blight leavens these white voices, with black voices and composes a symphony, on this pivotal period in American history and in American race relations.

Returning to Mametland, “Race” is set in the present. It is a four actor play. There are Lawson and Brown, the white and black male law partners. There is Strickland, the rich, white defendant, accused of raping a younger black woman. Then there is Susan, also young black woman, and recent addition to the firm. Only Susan’s character has no last name. Mamet’s stacatto dialog spans two acts, and multiple aspects of jurisprudence. The subject of race is intertwined throughout these discussions. Lawson argues the law, but the crux of his argument always returns to race.

The Civil War was this nation’s struggle to expunge the stain of slavery. Read about the 13th Amendment. This war’s death rolls dwarfed all other American wars, both before and since. Even with this sacrifice, it took another hundred years before Civil Rights gained any traction. We are now sitting fifty years beyond that point. This is also the timeframe of Mamet’s play, except that all of the characters, save maybe Susan, are too old to successfully digest this last half century in race relations. This gives Mamet’s play a stale, dated feel. Its opening joke about OJ only underscores this sense. Only the recent DSK scandal, offers this play any touchstone to the present. That event dealt more with relations between the sexes rather than the races. Mamet confronts similar sexual issues, but always returns to race.

John Steuart Curry’s painting, “The Mississippi” has little to do with race, save that the family that is stranded, is black. Curry also painted farm animals, caught in similar predicaments. These paintings depict the 1927 flood, a scourge visited upon man by God. Race is a scourge that man alone devised and someday, we shall overcome.

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