Engage & Learn


I do not think that people are basically good at heart. Indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.- David Mamet, 2008


Race takes place in the offices of Lawson and Brown, a law firm that consists of Jack Lawson, a white man in his forties; Henry Brown, a black man in his forties; and Susan, a black woman in her twenties. Charles, a wealthy white man of some fame, comes to their office seeking legal representation because he has been accused of raping a black woman in a hotel room – a crime that Charles claims he did not commit.

The play opens with Henry lecturing Charles on the subject of race. Henry and Jack impress upon Charles the racial nature of his case – the jury will consider the evidence through the lens of their own prejudices, thus rendering their impressions of him more important than the facts themselves. Because he is white, male, and rich, Charles is the perfect target for a jury with a racial agenda.

Jack and Henry want to know why Charles has come to them. Obviously having black and white legal representation sends a favorable message to the jury, but they also know that his first choice was a very competent lawyer named Greenstein. When confronted, Charles enigmatically responds that he didn’t like the way Greenstein was handling his case. To give them time to consider whether to accept Charles as a client, Jack sends Charles offstage to the outer office with a legal pad. Jack instructs him to make a list of any sins that could be dredged up in court to tarnish Charles’s character. Charles acquiesces.

With Charles out of the room, Jack and Henry puzzle through the facts of the case. We see Jack act as a mentor to Susan, and she is clearly an attentive pupil. Henry calls Greenstein for more information while Jack asks Susan to get copies of various documents, including the testimonies of the First Responding Officers and the hotel maid. Jack also tells Susan to buy them more time by keeping Charles busy with a “client information form.” Susan begins to ask whether such a form exists, but Jack interrupts her before she can finish the question. The phone rings. Jack learns that his police contact is out of town and unable to provide the documents that Jack needs immediately. Henry can’t get a hold of Greenstein; they’re running out of time. When Susan inquires about Charles’ history with racial matters, Jack and Henry thoroughly dismiss her – for them, a client’s character only matters to the extent that it sways the jury.

As Henry goes to check on Charles, Susan and Jack discuss jury psychology. Jack argues that in order to win the jury, they must involve the jurors in a different story than the one they’ve heard from the press. To illustrate his point, Jack asks Susan what she remembers about her trip to Venice. He likens the trial to a trip and the jury’s expectations to a city’s famous landmarks. Their strongest memory from the trip may be of those landmarks, or it may be a seemingly inconsequential experience of personal significance. If they can give the jury that experience, then they might convince the jury to return a favorable verdict.

As Henry returns, Jack instructs Susan to call around for the documents he needs. Susan exits, and Greenstein finally calls back. When Jack asks Greenstein why Charles has come to Lawson and Brown, Greenstein reveals a very sticky piece of evidence: a white, middle-aged wife and her preacher husband were in the adjoining hotel room when the alleged rape occurred, and they overheard Charles call the victim a “little nigger bitch.” After the phone call ends, Henry warns Jack that regardless of money they may earn from this case, it will cost them clients in the future.

When Susan enters with Jack’s documents, Henry tells her that they’re going to pass on the case. Confused, Susan says she’ll have to give Charles back his check, which she had him fill out as part of his “client information form.” Jack and Henry are horrified because Charles’s check constitutes a legal contract. As Jack tries to come up with a way not to accept the check, he learns that Susan contacted the D.A. for the documents, thereby listing Lawson and Brown as the Attorneys of Record. Saddled with this unfortunate case, Henry makes the suggestion that they present a less than spirited defense of their despicable client. Jack combs through the documents and discovers a key piece of evidence: the victim claims that Charles tore off her red sequined dress before he raped her, but there is no trace of sequins in any witness’s description of the wrecked hotel room. Jack also comes up with a way to spin Charles’s shocking racial epithet: on the stand, Charles will testify to calling the alleged victim “my little nigger bitch.”

Scene Two begins with Jack and Henry reviewing the three pillars of their defense: the absence of sequins from the crime scene report, Charles’s clarification of the overheard “phrase,” and the physical dress itself. Henry plans to get the dress’s material and thread from the manufacturer without letting the D.A. get wind of it.

Susan enters to announce that Charles has arrived. Jack asks Susan to check the victim’s dress size and reveals that he’s planning to demonstrate the spread of sequins in the courtroom by having a black woman of the same size wear a replica of the dress, which a man will tear off before throwing her on a mattress. Offhandedly, Jack suggests that Susan could wear the dress.

Henry exits to greet Charles, leaving Jack and Susan to discuss the highly sensitive nature of the planned demonstration. In order to distract the jury from the racial issues of the case, the demonstration must surprise them. Additionally this strategy must be kept secret from the prosecution because anyone could easily plant a sequin the hotel room. Henry returns with the news that Charles wants to make an apologetic statement to the press. Jack calls in Charles, who believes that though he did not rape the alleged victim, who was his mistress, he exploited her. We learn that Charles first met his mistress through an escort service and continued to give her money over the course of their relationship, though he insists that he wasn’t paying her for sex. Hoping to keep him from clearing his conscience in the papers, Jack sends Charles into the next room to confide in Henry.

Susan and Jack return to their conversation about Jack’s planned demonstration. Susan asks if Jack will reveal to the jury that the victim is a prostitute, and Jack replies that as a white man, he’s not permitted to impugn a black woman’s sexuality. Instead, Jack hopes to usher the jury past the case’s racial overtones by asking why the victim lied about removing her own dress. In an abrupt change of subject, Susan asks Jack how he knew about her trip to Venice, which she intentionally omitted from her travel history when she applied for her job. Caught off-guard, Jack offers several false explanations, but it’s too late. Susan knows that he must have investigated her before hiring her and believes that he looked into her background more thoroughly because of her race. Jack attempts to redeem himself by pointing out that he hired Susan despite the fact that she lied, but this information doesn’t mollify her. She has learned from Jack’s police contact that Jack has only requested such an exhaustive background check when considering black candidates. Jack reluctantly admits that to a business owner, black employees pose a greater risk because they can sue for discrimination if fired. Defending his illegal, race-based hiring practices, Jack opines that policies like affirmative action apply different standards to people of different races. Susan shifts the conversation back to the case and its racial issues. When Jack asks her directly what’s bothering her, Susan reveals that she was deeply offended by his suggestion that she wear the sequined dress in the courtroom demonstration. Jack apologizes and asks for her forgiveness. Susan agrees to forgive him, but the extent of her lingering resentment is unclear.

Henry returns from his conversation with Charles bearing yet another unfortunate piece of evidence: an old postcard that Charles sent to his roommate during their college days. In the postcard, Charles likened the tropical evening air to being in “some hot, black cunt”

The play’s third and final scene begins with Henry and Jack questioning Charles about the postcard. Charles admits that he wrote it and sent it to his college roommate, Bill, because the two of them joked about the sexual voracity of black women. Charles’ recollection, though, doesn’t account for why Bill, a black man, would keep the postcard for so long and then send it to Charles’s lawyer now. Slowly, Henry manages to convince a very stubborn Charles that Bill is punishing Charles for his racist behavior. Jack assures Charles that the postcard has no bearing on Charles’s innocence, but the episode reinvigorates Charles’s desire to go to the press.

Susan enters. While Jack attempts to interpret Charles’ checkered past, Susan hands him a statement from the hotel cleaning lady in which she now describes sequins under the bed. Immediately, Jack finds it odd that this hotel employee, whom he assumes is a nearly illiterate illegal immigrant, has voluntarily gone to the police to amend her statement. Henry returns, and Jack fills him in. Unable to get a satisfactory explanation from his police contact, Jack comes to the conclusion that someone leaked their defense – if not Charles, then someone else who knew.

Henry sends Susan to fetch his briefcase so he can have a word alone with Jack. Jack wonders if the prosecution convinced the maid to forge evidence, but Henry believes that Susan has sold them out. As a black man, Henry says, he can see past Susan’s “act,” to which Jack’s racial guilt makes him blind. We learn that Henry never wanted to hire Susan, but Jack feared that because of her stellar credentials, rejecting her application could result in a discrimination suit. Henry dismisses Susan’s success in life as a mere product of affirmative action, a racial dispensation that Henry says he would be “mortified” to receive. Henry also suspects that Susan contacted Charles’s college roommate.

Susan reenters with the briefcase, and Jack and Henry begin to question her. Henry asks if she requested Charles’s check and called the D.A. in order to force their firm to take the case. Question by question, Jack fleshes out Susan’s negative impression of Charles. We learn that Susan believed that Charles would be found guilty and punished for the rape she is sure that he committed. Henry asks Susan if she sold them out, and by way of reply, Susan asks when she lost their trust – or if she ever had it. Though Henry never trusted her, Jack gave her a chance– and now she has betrayed him. Susan wants them to present evidence of her betrayal. When the phone rings, Henry answers it while Jack calls Susan a “fucking ingrate” and orders her out of his sight. Susan retorts that Jack forgot to call her “nigger.”

Henry hangs up the phone and tells Jack that he has just spoken to the District Attorney. The rookie First Responding Officers forgot to submit a page of their initial reports that describes the sequin-covered room. In turn, Charles has confessed to the rape. Jack tries to apologize to Susan, who interrupts him, asserting that black people know white people will betray them at every turn. She asks Henry and Jack whether they cared that their client raped the victim. Henry understands that Susan did not leak the information about the sequins but wants to know if she called Bill. When she replies that she has no idea what he means, it is unclear to us whether she is lying. Jack wants to know whether Susan betrayed him, and Susan tells him that such an action would have had no bearing on the case. When Jack asks why, Susan responds explosively: “Because, White Man, he was guilty.”

To view interviews with the cast and director of Race, click here

Additional Resources

For more information on privilege:

Here is Chapter 1 from Privilege, Power and Difference, written by sociologist and writer Allan G. Johnson, click here
And his treatise on the impact of class and race on individuals, click here

For information on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case:

For an analysis of the media’s handling of the case, click here
For an article detailing the arrest and charges, click here
A timeline of events, click here and here.

For critiques of the media’s portrayal of women and sexual assault, click here and here

To understand how the media hypersexualizes young women, and for a discussion of strategies to decode that, listen to this audioclip

For information on 2009:

Although I was still listening to the Beatles, the Supremes, and John Coltrane, the rest of the world was listening to something completely different. Click here to see what was in most earbuds.
Even I caught up with the digital natives when apps exploded. Here’s what else was happening in the digital universe.

President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and Lynn Nottage won the Pulitzer for Ruined. Here’s what Chicagoans voted as their favorite things that year.

A Christmas Carol

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From Page to Stage

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Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men

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Teddy Ferrara

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Measure for Measure

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By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

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Bayard Rustin speaking to a crowd in 1965. Photo by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (via Wikimedia Commons)
The March on Washington

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Momma’s Boyz

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