Friday, April 19, 2013

The Grey Area - Race and The Call - Play Reviews

Race - Canadian Stage at Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - Toronto, ON - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by David Mamet, Directed by Daniel Brooks
Runs until May 5th 2013

The Call - Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theatre - Off-Broadway - New York City, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Tanya Barfield, Directed by Leigh Silverman
Runs until May 19th 2013. Review based on early preview.

It may be 2013 but the colour of your skin still factors into the life you can and will lead in America. While daily life may not have as many overt incidences of racism or stereotyping as America's sordid past (the Civil War, the Scottsboro Boys, Malcollm X), countless new news stories (like the tragic death of Trayvon Martin) and political issues (like the absurdity in the importance in seeing Obama's birth certificate) keep the issues of being Black in America as a constant simmering issue.

Two recent new dramas attempt to discuss the issues of race in modern America, with Mamet dramatizing things in his usual hot-button scandal laced ways, while Tanya Barfield gently brings the subtle issues of race in a drama about a white yuppie couple who decide to adopt a baby from Africa after their Black lesbian friends return from a trip to Africa.

There are interesting points in David Mamet's Race, now playing at Canadian Stage, with some pointed statements that make for typical juicy quotable Mamet fare but the plot lacks enough bite to truly be controversial or incendiary. The story revolves around a pompous and rich White man Charles Strickland who is accused of raping a Black woman. Strickland hires a team of lawyers that include White laywer Jack Lawson, a Black lawyer Henry Brown, and a younger Black female lawyer, one who seems a match to the supposed victim. The set up, while not unlike a typical episode plotline on The Good Wife, Boston Legal, or The Practice, still has many interesting facets to explore, with issues of White privilege versus the expectations and struggles Blacks must overcome to succeed in America. Unfortunately, the more interesting points are rolled into a typical courtroom case as the lawyers discuss the legal tactics and points that may or may not help their own careers.

The cast has heralded attention for beloved former-Beverly Hills 90210-teen-idol Jason Priestley's presence on the Toronto stage. While Priestley, as Lawson, still seemed to be fitting into his stage shoes, his innate likability made me root for him and while there were some projection problems, I enjoyed his presence and would like to see him do more theatre in the future. However, with Stratford vets Nigel Shawn Williams as Brown, and Cara Ricketts as young lawyer Susan, things are quite unbalanced as Williams and Ricketts easily control the stage in terrific controlled performances in roles that are more archetypes and plot points than actual characters. The biggest deficit though is Matthew Edison as Strickland. Edison is far too likeable and soft to be playing what is supposed to be a pompous rich jerk and the whole plot that hinges on his character doesn't seem to propel itself from Edison's genial nature.

Still, I'm curious to hear what others have to say about Mamet's Race debate. I only wish the play about being Black and White in America had more colour to it.

In The Call, a new play running at Playwrights Horizons (in a co-production with Primary Stages), White couple Annie (Kerry Butler, Xanadu) and Peter (Kelly AuCoin) announce to their Black lesbian friends Rebecca (Eisa Davis, Passing Strange) and Drea (Crystal A. Dickinson, Clybourne Park) that they are going to adopt a baby. When their local first choice doesn't work out, a recent trip by Rebecca and Drea to Africa puts an idea into Annie and Peter who starts the process of adopting a baby from Africa. As the decisions takes hold, issues of a White couple raising a Black baby arrises, although the controversial sparks you would think would arise from their friends don't, as Rebecca and Drea are pretty supportive with the idea. It's other factors that puts doubt into the group, but ultimately, things begin to unravel when a backstory of an almost unrelated nature break things apart. Without revealing the twist, it sort of feels like it comes out of nowhere to add dramatic shock to the story when the initial idea hasn't been fully mined yet.

Add in an so-nice-he's-odd African neighbour, who insists that Annie and Peter go through with the adoption while asking them to bring shipments of donations to Africa at the same time, and The Call sort of falls off the rails when it tries to stuff too many possible controversies without really delving in fully into any one in particular. Major decisions seem glossed over and simply become assumed plot points, while the African neighbour Alemu (Russell G. Jones) seems to spout out prophetic Oprah-like wisdom.

The cast tries to inject as much realism into the promising play, with the most compelling and subtle performances from Eisa Davis, Crystal A. Dickinson and Kelly AuCoin, but the attempt to tie a shocking past to the story rings false and unnecessary for a story already so filled with so many complications and issues.

I appreciated the attempts at thought provoking plays potentially with flaming controversy with the still-hot button issue of race in contemporary America. While there are interesting points and great potential in set ups for Race and The Call, both plays, despite some great performances, aren't quite as scathing as the premise sets up for. Some plot points don't quite add up, and it takes away from the possible truth the plays reaches for. Still, they are the types of plays that cry out to be discussed afterwards and I'm incredibly curious to hear what others have to say about them, and wonder if the colour of my own skin (and that I am neither Black nor White) may have anything to do with my reactions to the play.

Photos of Race by David Hou
Photo of The Call by Jeremy Daniel
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