Face to face with race

2011-10-15 00:00

DESPITE entering our second decade as a democracy, everything that we say and do in South Africa is inevitably coloured by the issue of race.

Whether it’s quotas on the sportsfield, BEE in the corporate world or simply being cut up in traffic by a taxi driver, our knee-jerk response is never colour-blind.

And it’s precisely the issue of race and inbuilt prejudice that lies at the heart of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet’s play Race, which is being staged in the Playhouse Drama Theatre in Durban from today until October 22.

Part of the New Stages Festival, which opened last week with Kurt Egelhof’s For Generations and concludes with Janna Ramos-Violante’s Mein Soldat on October 21 and October 22, Race is being produced by special arrangement with Abrams Artists Agency New York.

Its plot revolves around three lawyers — two partners, one African-American, one white, and their young African-American law clerk — who are debating whether to take the case of a wealthy white man accused of raping an African-American woman. The play, like the case, is not open and shut.

Playhouse chief executive officer and artistic director Linda Bukhosini saw Race while in New York and knew instantly that it had to be performed in South Africa. She also wanted the play to be directed by a woman.

Enter multi-award-winning Durban actress and director Clare Mortimer, who admits to jumping at the chance to direct Race.

“I really like his [Mamet’s] style — both to perform and to watch — and in directing Race I have strictly obeyed all the rules he lays down. I’ve loved the challenge,” she says.

“It’s also refreshing to see an American product which speaks a 100% to a South African audience.”

While accepting that some people might be offended by the play and its subject matter, she personally hopes it will encourage people to be more open about the issue of race.

“We had a peaceful but speedy transition from one regime to another and I don’t think that anyone of any age or race was really able to process it,” Mortimer tells me during a break in rehearsals.

“We haven’t engaged honestly with it. Yes, it’s discussed all the time — in homes, on radio, at social events — but these are not informed or honest about challenging our history of racial violence.

“The issue of race is preventing us from taking action, either as individuals or as leaders. It is so much easier to blame someone. I would have thought that we would have given up relying on past racial issues to justify our behaviour, but unfortunately we haven’t.

“Mamet says that all discussions about race are sanctimonious because of the fear people have of saying what they are concerned about and what they should say in certain situations.

“Every single person has prejudice, but we’re not allowed to admit it anymore. Mamet shows us that he has had enough of that. I think we all are. We are tired of the dance. We have to sit down.”

Starring in the show — which boasts an intriguing sloping set designed by Sarah Roberts and lighting by Mannie Manim — are Sello Maake ka-Ncube (Scandal, Mating Birds with Themi Venturas), Michael Richard (Duet for One with Mortimer, History Boys), Ralph Lawson (My Fair Lady) and Belinda Henwood (The Swansong of Norrie Da Silva, Cabaret).

Mortimer admits to being thrilled with her cast, who’ve worked hard in and out of the rehearsal room to come to grips with Mamet’s style, which is marked by dialogue which overlaps, characters who frequently interrupt each other and sentences which trail off. “Mamet is really tricky stuff, but they’ve been amazing,” she added.

Mortimer, who has previously worked with Henwood on Mamet’s Boston Marriage (presented by the KickStArt Theatre Company), says: “A lot of Mamet scripts don’t stand up to scrutiny. He doesn’t care about the back story of the characters. It’s about what is on stage and what the people in the audience see.

“But actors, and I include myself, tend to obsess about the back story. We want to know what the character is doing when they go off stage, their motivations. All Mamet wants is for the actors to be talented, to learn their lines and not to bump into the furniture.”

So folks, prepare yourself for a unique evening of drama, during which you’ll be brought face-to-face with shame, guilt, class, sex, lies and, of course, race, all of which is likely to leave you dissecting and discussing the play long after the curtain has gone down.


• Race is in the Drama Theatre at the Playhouse in Durban from October 15 to October 22. Tickets can be booked through Computicket.

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