Discussing ‘Race,’ reconsidering values

David Mamet’s new play gets at what we talk about when we talk about race; it’s full of evasions, justifications and agendas.

The play “Race” premiered in New York last year. The Philadelphia Theater Company has just opened a production at the Suzanne Roberts Theater on Broad Street.

The plot revolves around lawyers hired to defend a rich white man accused of raping a black woman. But the facts are sketchy at best, and the lawyers construct arguments based on values more than evidence.

“In certain circumstances you would expect the audience to talk right back to the actors,” says PTC artistic director Sara Garonzik. “I admire our audiences for restraining themselves and just watching.”

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On Monday, Jan. 31, the audience is invited to talk.

The format will not be a panel of scholars and activists, but a structured discussion arising from the participants. Harris Sokoloff of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement is in charge of the team of moderators who will lead the discussion.

“So often we think that the facts matter most. But when we think about why we do what we do, facts are secondary to our values,” says Sokoloff. “This play raises the issue of values over and over again.”

The forum is open to anyone who has seen the play.  Your ticket stub to the play is your passport to take part. Organizers limited participation to people who’ve seen “Race” since the forum will be based on specific references to characters and actions in the play.

The argumentative nature of the play — two lawyers, one paralegal and one client browbeating one another over respective preconceptions of race, sex and class — makes it particularly ripe for post-curtain discussion. The play is designed to be provocative, being short on concrete facts and long on competing narratives.

“What the play is trying to do is ultimately put the audience in the position of being on the jury,” says director Scott Zigler.  “As is the case in this kind of he said/she said situation, the jury never knows what happened. They only know the stories presented to them.”

Zigler, a co-founder with David Mamet of the Atlantic Theater Company, was not involved with the New York premiere. Two of the actors — Jordan Lage and Ray Anthony Thomas — appeared in the premiere run as understudies.

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