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article imageCanadian Stage director Daniel Brooks takes on racy Mamet play Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Apr 10, 2013 in Entertainment
Toronto - “I'm a good liberal, and I've always made a lot of assumptions about my own liberal purity,” says director Daniel Brooks. “I haven't thought a lot about race, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to enter a discussion about it.”
The opportunity to which Brooks is referring is his current project: the Toronto premiere of David Mamet's provocative 2009 play, Race. Canadian Stage's production of the play officially opens tomorrow night, with one-time Beverly Hills, 90210 star Jason Priestley in a leading role. The play deals with two attorney partners – one Caucasian, one African American – caught up in the case of a rich white man who's accused of raping a young black woman. As the lawyers sort through the evidence with a young, female and black legal assistant, racially biased attitudes and hypocrisies begin to boil to the surface and take over the focus.
One of Canada's most acclaimed and respected theatre directors – probably best known for his collaborations with Daniel MacIvorBrooks took on Race partly out of fascination with the highly charged subject matter. But he stresses that racism isn't the only thing that the play is about.
“It's a very particular play that's unlike much of Mamet's other work,” he explains. “He's exploring how to create a drama of ideas. The play is really attempting to take four distinctive points of view – four people who have very specific beliefs – and throw them together in a very dramatic dialogue. I've tried to direct it so that those four points of view have as much expression as possible.
“One of its central themes has nothing to do with race; it's to do with how we hold to our beliefs and are blinded by them. I think some people with a very sophisticated understanding of the discussion of race may find that the play doesn't contribute to it.”
Also starring in CanStage's version of Race are Matthew Edison, Cara Ricketts and Nigel Shawn Williams, all of whom get a chance to sink their teeth into Mamet's distinctive style of dialogue and challenging themes.
“He has a very specific personality, David Mamet,” says Brooks. “He's a great craftsman, and he has no sentimentality. He has an obsessive interest in conflict – sexual conflict, and conflict in power. His themes are real, and he has a biting imagination.”
As a playwright, Mamet is famous for hard-edged, high-stakes classics like Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo and Oleanna. But then there's the other Mamet: the one who unashamedly declared his conversion to the political right in 2008, the one who now opposes gun control and has made highly questionable remarks about Muslims and 9/11. He even dedicated Race to Shelby Steele, a conservative African American writer who penned the book White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.
Brooks acknowledges Mamet's born-again conservatism, but doesn't take it too seriously. “I've seen Mamet talk about the Middle East conflict, and I don't think his politics are well thought out,” he says.
“I'm personally not really interested in the right-left dichotomy. I just don't find it interesting. I'm interested in trying to learn different points of view, but articulate, thoughtful points of view. And I think that a big problem with the political discussion in North America is this shallow division between left and right. And Mamet has, to some degree, entered that division. But that's not the crux of this play.”
Neither is the Barack Obama presidency, Brooks says, since Mamet wrote Race before Obama was elected: “I think Mamet would have written a slightly different play, had he written it after the election.”
And, of course, there's Mamet's supposed misogyny; the women he creates tend to be shallow, underdeveloped plot devices at best and monstrous villains at worst. “The female characters in his plays are always difficult,” Brooks admits. “I feel that we've partially solved it in this play in some ways, only because Mamet has provided that possibility. The female character in this play, Susan, has very strong, passionate beliefs.”
The original Broadway production of Race, which Mamet directed, received mixed reviews. But Brooks feels it's a good play. “I didn't see the production in New York. From what I've heard, it really stuck to a rhetorical approach. It was very dry. There are very few writers who direct their own work and do it well.
“I think there's a lot of passion in the play. A number of people who've seen the previews have said that they like this production more than the New York production.”
And part of that may have to do with the star power of Priestley, the Vancouver-born TV actor who's returning to the stage for the first time in more than a decade. “He's a lovely guy,” Brooks says of Priestley. “He's game and courageous. He hasn't been onstage in a long time, so it's challenging for him, and he's just an adventurer.
“He's a pleasure to work with.”
Race runs at Toronto's Bluma Appel Theatre (St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts) until May 5.
More about Theatre, Stage, david mamet, Drama, canadian stage
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