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Theater Tue Jan 10 2012
In America, to discuss race is to discuss the proverbial "elephant in the room"; however, for Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet, it is a subject that should not--and cannot--be ignored. Recently, I sat down with actor Geoffrey Owens to talk about his character in Mamet's Race, a play that boldly confronts the political and sociological aspects of race in society.
As you know, race has always been that one subject that sparks a variety of emotions in people; when you read the script for Race, what were your initial thoughts?
My initial contact with the play was actually seeing it on Broadway; I remember thinking, "Wow -- [Mamet]'s talking about it." And then when I read the play, of course, I was able to get a more careful and closer look at it. I think what's remarkable about it is not necessarily his opinions or the characters' opinions about it, but the fact that he's talking about it at all.
It is indeed difficult to get people to discuss it.
Race, unless it's a forum, or an officially sanctioned discussion or symposium, is that topic people do not talk about -- especially in a mixed setting. People are just very afraid to talk about it out in the open. The fact that he puts all of these issues onstage -- some of them, anyway -- is pretty remarkable.
What about the different audiences who will come to see this particular play?
Of course, the reality also is that the American theatergoing public is white and black theatergoers tend to go to black plays, so the question becomes, "What segment or percentage of the black community will actually see a play by David Mamet?" And although Mamet has now put it out in an artistically public forum, how many African-Americans will come into contact with his thoughts and ideas about this? Otherwise, if it is a play for white people, it would be good that those issues are being dealt with, but not as good as if the crowd is truly mixed and people are together. Hopefully in Chicago, the African-American community will come out so that it's a mixed experience. I think David Mamet really wants it to be. He says some very controversial things that need to be heard and I think it's a topic we all need to be talking about -- a lot.
With this play's subject matter, especially given its title, there are some who might say "Oh, another play about race" -- how would you respond?
I would ask, "How many significant plays about race have you seen?" There are plays that deal with racial issues -- I mean, A Raisin in the Sun deals with race, but it's from a certain perspective where there are clear lines of victimization and racial discrimination. There have been many plays where that is the case. This one is much more complicated; it brings up more complicated issues than one side is the victim and one side is the oppressor. It gets into some of the racial and sociological theories of a gentleman named Shelby Steele to whom the play is dedicated; by the way, I think it would behoove any adult American citizen to read some of the stuff that Steele has written. It's very provocative and profound and worth looking at in terms of the dynamic between whites and blacks and the cycle that we've gotten into -- some of the cycles of racism and racialism and how both sides perpetuate it. Other plays about race don't get into that so much; they're more clearly, "Racism is wrong" and "Don't do it." That's a simple and good message, but this is more complex and more provocative.
Speaking of race, you were a cast member of the iconic "The Cosby Show." Many cultural critics argued that the show didn't confront it enough; in fact, this topic still comes up in pop culture discussions. Why do you think the show still serves as the "go-to" source for discussions of race from the pop culture standpoint?
I guess because it's the icon for what I call the "positive image" of black American life; it has been denigrated and criticized as a realistic portrayal, but it is the icon of what was supposedly ideal. The thing that made the show so popular was its universality -- the fact that everybody could relate to it -- that some people actually forgot that they were dealing with a black family. It was just a family and that was the positive part of it. The negative part was that many people, especially black Americans, felt like it just wasn't true or realistic and that it gave a false sense of black upward mobility. You can't please everyone and for all the good that it did for some people, there was another side that resented it, for whatever reason. I personally think that it did a lot more good than harm -- it was wonderful that people looked at that family as human beings rather than as "black." I'm all for that, so for me, it was a good thing.
Despite the negative comments, there are in fact those who would definitely agree with you about the show's "universal" appeal.
I had an Italian woman come up to me once and tell me, "Bill Cosby reminded me of my old Sicilian father." In other words, the show tapped into these universal things about human beings that everyone related to. So, to try to pull it down because it didn't solve or address all the sociopolitical issues that needed to be addressed in society is not meaningless -- because those people who did that meant well and wanted certain things to change -- but that wasn't the mission of the show. The show couldn't do all that. It did a lot of great things but it can't solve those things.
Did you ever wish the show confronted it more head-on, at least occasionally?
No. It never occurred to me. Personally, I did not hold the show responsible for doing that. I was content that it did all the good that it did.
Let's talk about your character, "Henry Brown," who is a partner at a law firm. What drew you to him -- were there any personal, professional or general experiences that enabled you to identify with him?
I feel I have a personal connection with my character Henry; what mostly makes me identify with him is that he is very much an individual. He's African-American -- he knows he is and knows he is recognized as such, but he does not conform to people's generalizations -- or act like he's supposed to. Like many of the Mamet characters, he's not politically correct; actually, that's what both of the partners in the play have in common. He's very much a lawyer first -- the law and his profession are clearly the most important things to him and if you think he's going to act otherwise you're sadly mistaken.
Given Henry's attitude towards race, how does that dynamic play out in the story, especially where other characters are involved?
His enemy in the play is Susan, the other black character who is the young associate to the partners. She is Henry's nemesis and to me, that is the most fascinating dynamic in the play -- that "black-on-black" dynamic. In my opinion, to Susan being black comes first -- before the law. My character is the opposite and that is our conflict throughout the whole play. This is one of the things that makes this play so interesting and that's why it's not the typical play about race.
What's it like working with director Chuck Smith?
Working with Chuck is wonderful -- he's a director who really trusts actors. He's never afraid to say what he wants, but he sees what you're bringing to it first. He is going to take everything you give and then shape it his way and then add what he wants, which is wonderful. He also happens to appreciate a lot of what I'm bringing to the play and what I bring to "Henry." I think we see very closely about what we both want and what the play requires.
And the cast?
Marc [Grapey] (Jack) is just a wonderful partner -- immediately, we felt like we had that same relationship as those guys in the firm. As actors, we tell each other things; in acting, it's not politically correct to tell your partner what to do on stage, but we do that with each other. Usually, you can't go there with another actor, but we're two pros and we've been in the business a long time, so we just don't beat around the bush with each other. Patrick Clear, who plays Charles, is just brilliant and Tamberla Perry, who plays Susan, is just wonderful. Everybody is great to work with. The whole theater -- all the support we get -- it's been a great experience.
How do you think a story like Race resonates in our current society?
It only resonates if people come to see it and talk about it -- it doesn't resonate if it just sits on the page or on the shelves in the bookstore or the library, or if it's only seen by a little amount of people in this town or that town.
If there is any one thing you want the audience to take away from this play, what would it be?
Talk about race -- talk about it.
David Mamet's Race opens Saturday, Jan. 14 at 8pm at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets are $25-$89; show days and times vary. Runs through Feb. 19. For more information, contact the box office at 312-443-3800.