In 'Race,' David Alan Grier Confronts Painful Issues A new Broadway play from writer David Mamet has audience members shifting in their seats. It's about the prickly and painful issues that arise out of a legal case in which a wealthy white man is accused of raping a black woman. Actor David Alan Grier, who plays a lawyer, says Mamet is exploding the notion that America has moved past racism.
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In 'Race,' David Alan Grier Confronts Painful Issues

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In 'Race,' David Alan Grier Confronts Painful Issues

In 'Race,' David Alan Grier Confronts Painful Issues

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

On Broadway right now, a new play from David Mamet has audience members wincing.

Our co-host Michele Norris went to New York to see it and to talk to one of its stars.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From the get-go, this play is meant to make you uncomfortable. The posters for the production feature a faceless woman - her shapely thighs barely covered by a red sequin dress. She appears to be perched on the edge of a bed. Below that provocative picture, the play's equally provocative title, �Race.� Months ago, that title caught the attention of actor David Alan Grier.

Mr. DAVID ALAN GRIER (Actor): I'd heard about it, you know, this is an exciting new play called �Race,� you know, about black people, David Mamet. I mean, I wanted to - yeah, it was called �Race,� I wanted to see it.

NORRIS: You want to be�

Mr. GRIER: Wouldn't you want to see a play called �Black Women?� I mean, like, well, you was, like, well, what is this about?

NORRIS: Well, as I found out after last Wednesday's matinee, �Race� is about the prickly and painful issues that arise out of a legal case. A wealthy white man, played by Richard Thomas, is accused of raping a black woman. He seeks legal representation at a law firm run by two partners � a white lawyer played by James Spader and a black lawyer played by David Alan Grier. Rounding out the four-person cast is Kerry Washington as a leggy, black intern.

All the characters test audience assumptions on racial allegiance and gender politics. For David Alan Grier, who trained in Shakespeare at Yale's School of Drama, the play offers a chance to take on a weighty role. Grier is best known as a comedian from his years on TV shows like �Chocolate News� and �In Living Color,� and from several films where he's cast as a somewhat goofy sidekick. In �Race,� Grier rarely smiles. In fact, he practically scowls as he tussles with his client, Richard Thomas.

(Soundbite of play, �Race�)

Mr. RICHARD THOMAS (Actor): (As Charles Strickland) I didn't do anything.

Mr. GRIER (As Henry Brown): You're white.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMAS: (As Strickland) Is that a crime?

Mr. GRIER (As Brown): In this instance.

Mr. THOMAS (As Strickland): You're kidding.

Mr. GRIER (As Brown): Sadly, I am not.

Mr. THOMAS (As Strickland) Do you care that I'm white?

Mr. GRIER (As Brown): Do I hate white folks? Is that your question? Do all black people hate whites? Let me put your mind at rest, you bet we do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Why are people laughing at that?

Mr. GRIER: I don't know. You know, I'm not the audience. But what I feel like is that it's one of those lines that is true. I mean�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRIER: �in a lot of ways, it's true. I mean, as a black person, because I've played on that. I played that card and enjoyed playing it many times. Also, I've been the victim of that card, you know, and not wanted to deal with it. So, I think it's one of those common truisms that are in this play. I mean, what we're saying, I think what David Mamet is trying to say is that to a greater or lesser extent, most people that come to this play can grasp tidbits or chunks of what we feel is true about race from this play. Not all of it.

But there's a little bit of what you said, okay, I have thought that. There's a little bit of what this other character said, yeah, I thought that, too. But does it supposed to encompass everything we say is what you feel? No, no. It has more to do with culturally, racially, politically, sexually what you bring in the theater.

NORRIS: David Mamet is famous for writing dialogue that has a very particular cadence and patois. Is that rapid fire rat-a-tat-tat delivery particularly suited for a subject like this? And was it difficult for you as an actor to master?

Mr. GRIER: What was difficult for me to master, and I hope I'm successful, is anyone can learn by rote, a back and forth dialogue, but to infuse it with humanity, spontaneity and organic energy, realness, that's what I wanted to do. So, it doesn't sound robotic, inhuman, real technical and cold, which are some of the things you hear about David Mamet. For me that was the biggest and most important thing to try and really just make it real, you know. So that was the - that was a goal.

NORRIS: What do you get back from the audience when you're on stage in this production?

Mr. GRIER: It depends on the night. I think black people, you know, it's different - you came today. But if you come tonight or if you came tomorrow night, where there's a larger contingency of African-Americans in the audience, there's a different reaction and a different interplay in the audience. Younger black people, younger African-American people react to different things on a different level than older African-Americans. I'll give you an example: older African-Americans, when I say, you know, this little girl, you know, looking at me and in her eyes, where's your watermelon? To older African-American couples, oh my god. To younger black people, they crack up. You know what I'm saying? Because that's a generational difference.

NORRIS: You know, there's a line in the play where your law partner, a character played by James Spader. He says nothing a white person can say. There is nothing.

(Soundbite of play, �Race�)

Mr. JAMES SPADER (Actor): (As Jack Lawson) There is nothing, a white person can say to a black person about race, which is not both incorrect and offensive. No. I know that. Race is the most incendiary topic in our history. And the moment it comes out, you cannot close the lid on that box. That may change, but not for a long, long while.

NORRIS: When he delivers this line, it makes me think, if this play is written from a white man's point of view, as a black man, does this play feel like race as experienced or envisioned by a white playwright? Is he standing above looking at all perspectives or can he only see one thing because of his experience?

Mr. GRIER: No. I mean, when I look at this play, I don't - if I didn't know any better, I wouldn't know who wrote it. You know, I wouldn't know if a black or white person wrote it. I wouldn't assume that. You know, because, you know, a lot of African-Americans come to this play and they go, it's called �Race.� Well, you know, let me see if you all really get down. I mean, are you going to get down like that or what? My brother said that, and he goes, oh, no, he puts it down.

Well, what I think what prompted this - what prompted David to write this play was not the election of Barack Obama, it was post-election, you know. And it's something I talked about in my book and I talked about onstage and I continue to talk about it, where there was, like, this two days of euphoria and then it was back to business as usual. There were a lot of people who thought, well, there's no more racism now, you know. Now we can be, you know, free of racism. And no, no. A lot has changed. You know, we as a country have made great strides ahead, but just go online. No, a lot hasn't.

And that's what I really think pushed him to - this is the right time to do it also, you know. Right at that point in our history, when you go, oh, come on, we've advanced so much. Really? No, not that much. We still have work to do. The dialogue continues.

NORRIS: David, thank you very much.

Mr. GRIER: Sure, you're welcome.

NORRIS: David Alan Grier. He plays the Lawyer Henry Brown in David Mamet's new play, �Race.� It's currently onstage at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York City.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: That's our co-host Michele Norris. And you can see a clip from �Race� at npr.org.

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