Weathervane Community Playhouse will bring the Summit County premiere of David Mamet’s provocative drama Race — which dives headfirst into the bald ugliness of racial and sexual stereotypes — to its main stage starting Jan. 30.
The first time that director Jennifer Jeter read the play’s script, it angered her, from the story’s subject of rape to the faceless image of a shapely black woman wearing a red sequined dress on the cover.
In this volatile drama, an older, wealthy, white businessman is accused of raping a young black woman. He hires a firm with one white attorney and one black attorney to represent him, aided by a new black female legal assistant. Ugly accusations concerning sexual and racial politics are volleyed among characters.
“Delving into the messiness of race and sex is like watching the coupling of fire and gasoline. Nothing is left unblemished,” the director says in her program notes.
Jeter, 51, is part-time community engagement coordinator at Weathervane, where she works to bring in new, diverse audiences to the theater. The self-proclaimed social artist, an Akron native, focuses on theater as a way to respond to what she sees as immediate needs in her community.
The director, who is black, said she has always been interested in the subject of race.
“I love to direct plays about the African-American experience or by African-American writers,” she said. “I really think as a black female I may touch on certain elements that someone else may not touch on” in this play by Mamet, who is white.
Jeter, who received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theater from the University of Akron, has previously directed the African-American-themed plays Yellowman and Flying West at Weathervane.
In Race, which premiered on Broadway in 2009, Pulitzer Prize-winner Mamet holds up a mirror to contemporary society’s attitudes about race, and it’s not a pretty sight. Jeter said, “I think he’s [Mamet’s] trying to put in people’s faces just how raw it is.”
The play’s four characters are constantly pushing and testing boundaries to see how far they can go with one another. They’re all complex characters who lie to each other and often themselves.
Scott Shriner and Brian Armour play lawyers Jack and Henry, James Rizopulos is wealthy businessman Charles and Johnetta Harris is young legal assistant Susan.
Working on Race, which also asks questions about professional ethics and takes a cynical look at the U.S. legal system, has been a fulfilling experience for both Jeter and her cast. They have delved deeply into the characters’ backgrounds and explored motives for the loaded, often incendiary comments they make to one another.
At a recent rehearsal, Jeter asked Weathervane newcomer Harris to work on a stronger reaction for her character, Susan, after Susan’s mentor makes a particularly heinous remark to her.
Jeter welcomed the opportunity to direct Race comes just months after she created the program The Changing Face of Racism: Racial Micro Aggressions and Implicit Bias at Weathervane, which featured a panel discussion of community leaders. The director is using lessons from that discussion to help her actors research racial history and learn about veiled forms of racism.
“Racism in some form has always been here,” she said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily gonna be solved anytime soon. If anything, racist views of things have a tendency to morph, and where they may come out one way in 1850 is different from the way it came out in 1890, different from the way it came out during Jim Crow, different from the way it came out in the 1960s, different from the way it’s coming out now.”
Jeter’s own parents endured racism when they traveled the country in the 1940s and 1950s and had to sleep on roadsides because blacks weren’t allowed to stay in hotels. Her father, Willie Jeter, was part of the black migration from Arkansas in the mid ’40s. Her mother, Una, was an outspoken young woman who ripped down black drinking-fountain signs in segregated North Carolina before moving to Ohio.
When Jeter was an idealistic 18-year-old, she used to think racism was a thing of the past. But as a management trainee at her first job at an Akron food establishment, she was passed over for a promotion and became involved in a racial discrimination court case.
“I really believe that some of the things and challenges we come across or hurdles that we have in life are meant for us to grow and are responsible for what we do later in life. It really did have an effect in the type of art that I sought out and definitely the type of shows that I want to direct,’’ she said of that case.
Mamet places Race in a law firm office in a nonspecific city. Lawyer Jack is so jaded about the justice system, he doesn’t care whether his client is guilty or innocent. In court, he says, the truth is irrelevant because only perception matters with a jury.
Jeter sees this story as happening in the here and now.
“It could just as easily be Akron, Ohio, as it could be Chicago,” she said.
The hard-hitting play runs about 75 minutes with no intermission. That means no matter how uncomfortable the subject matter is, audience members don’t get a break. Mamet pushes audience members to ask themselves questions about their own attitudes concerning race.
“It forces people to see a reflection. It’s not gonna lie. It’s gonna give you just what you’re putting out,” Jeter said of this mirror.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.