Sunday, September 26, 2010

RACE on Broadway: “Black Bitches” and Convenient Amnesia

David Mamet’s latest Broadway success, Race, has been receiving praise since its star-studded debut in December 2009. David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington, and James Spader helped draw crowds, but reviews remained enthusiastic after they were replaced in mid-June. Even before the show’s Broadway run concluded, the Philadelphia Theatre Company announced that its upcoming season will feature Race. So, the play’s Broadway success has paved the way for profits on the road. Yet, when I traveled to New York sure that I would encounter intellectually challenging theatre, I was disappointed. Mamet’s work is characterized by a lack of complexity to be expected (perhaps) in college freshmen when they first arrive, not a respected artist.

The show’s most notable features? Its frequent use of the term “black bitch” and the convenient amnesia that produces its take-away message: whites, especially white men, are forced to tip-toe through life because blacks cry “discrimination” every chance they get.

In short, the play operates as if blacks wield unlimited social and legal power. According to Race, African Americans regularly make accusations--even false ones--and they are sure to triumph because whites (including those on juries) are afraid to appear racist. This flies in the face of the reality of U.S. discrimination suits. Further, it ignores the fact that non-whites are slow to label racist behavior because we know that our most painful experiences can be dismissed with “playing the race card, eh?”
The play centers on law partners (Jack, white and Henry, black) who debate whether they should defend a rich, white man (Charles Strickland) who has been accused of raping a black woman. The firm recently hired Susan, a young black female attorney whose rooky mistakes force them to take the case. Ultimately, though, she seems to have been a “traitor” all along, and Henry concludes that Jack compromised the firm by giving an “ungrateful” affirmative action baby a chance. In short, black women can only mean trouble. The uneducated ones falsely accuse you of rape, and the educated ones try to destroy your business with claims of discrimination or worse.

Naturally, then, “black bitch” is repeated throughout the production, and though the characters are often simply quoting others, this show confirmed that John McWhorter’s plea that we “make a deal on the N-word” underestimates the critical thinking that blacks routinely employ when we encounter racial epithets. (“Black nigger bitch” quotations emerge a couple times, too.) The play’s generous use of “black bitch” is tied to its overall logic, which depends on the idea that black women are temptresses that can ensnare men who are basically moral. The woman who has been raped never appears on stage, but she is constantly discussed. She is a prostitute whose rape charge is deemed irrelevant, if not ridiculous.

Mamet is known for crass language, so the epithet is not surprising, but its prominence calls attention to the only force that propels the action: the relentless reversal of historical facts. The notion that it is impossible to rape black women, because they are so naturally promiscuous, helped make slavery profitable. White men impregnated black women but their doing so not only made them rich and left their reputations intact, but it also somehow confirmed negative assumptions about blacks. These assumptions are not relics of the past. Indeed, the play relies on the audience’s awareness of the black whore stereotype but then denies its power. After all, audiences are expected to believe that whenever black women cry foul, white men are vulnerable.

Accepting Mamet’s portrait of American society requires ignoring power dynamics and the history that put them so firmly in place. Mamet has Susan reveal that Strickland has been flirting with her, and when asked why she thinks he would do that while being investigated for raping a black woman, she answers without hesitation, “He wants punishment.” In order for her to believe that, she must assume that white men accused by black women are sure to be prosecuted. Our nation’s past and present scream that this is not the case. More likely, Strickland is bold because he knows he won’t be punished.

In Mamet’s world, power dynamics favor blacks. Apparently, the exception makes the rule: Obama’s election means anti-black racism does not exist; there is only anti-white sentiment. Likewise, as suggested by Mamet’s earlier play, Oleanna, women who charge sexual harassment are not looking for protection under the law; they just want to manipulate men and the system. Oleanna originally appeared in 1992, on the heels of Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings. Like Thomas, Mamet conjures up an altered history in which a black woman makes false accusations and the nation launches into action, punishing whomever she names. Must be science fiction; this world has never existed.