courtesy Aaron Bernakevitch

Race on trial in Calgary

Questions of legal power intermingle with personal stories in locally produced play

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On the surface, race no longer appears to be an issue in North America. People of colour are respected and sometimes idolized while occupying many positions of authority in society, including some of the highest offices in government. Taking a closer look, however, reveals things about our culture and even our own thoughts that aren't quite so amicable. The play Race by David Mamet explores the lies we tell each other and ourselves about racism.

Mamet, a Pulitzer Prize-winning and Oscar-nominated dramatist, first created dialogue through Race with its 2009 Broadway debut. The one-act play takes place in the law offices of Lawson and Brown, a black and white lawyer, respectively. They are approached by a wealthy, privileged, middle-aged white man who has been accused of raping a poor, young black woman in a hotel room. The story takes many twists and turns, unravelling perspectives of gender, class, and, of course, race.

The provocative poster featuring the body of a woman in a scintillating red sequined dress invites audiences to Vertigo Theatre, where Kevin McKendrick of Ground Zero Theatre and Hit & Myth Productions directs Calgary's version of Race.

"In Canada, we tend to believe that racism isn't as much of an issue here as it is in the States," says McKendrick on the pertinence of a production like Race in Calgary. "Racism certainly exists in this country. It's a part of the systems we have, it's something we have built into us because of the way we've been raised or the media we've been exposed to, and it's important for us to keep this conversation out in the open."

McKendrick, who has been working in theatre for the last 35 years, has received many accolades, including eight Betty Mitchell nominations, an award celebrating outstanding achievement in Calgary's professional theatre community.

Though he is a white male, McKendrick recognizes the existence of racial barriers in the Calgary theatre community, where most theatre companies are run by white people who tend to cast friends and family, also white. "I don't think it's because anybody is practicing racism, or is actively biased," says McKendrick. "It's lack of imagination."

When asked what approaches will help shift the current state of white-dominated theatre in Calgary, McKendrick replies, "At Hit & Myth we're trying to practice what we preach, and if we use non-traditional casting techniques, over time not only will those stages be more reflective of the community, but the people running the theatre companies will be people from more visible minorities."

On the first day of rehearsal, the racially mixed cast and crew of the Calgary production of Race brought with them accounts of times when each had been both victim and perpetrator of prejudice. "Members shared all kinds of stories I never would have thought would have taken place in a city like Calgary," says McKendrick.

Perhaps the racially sensitive reputation we get is one crafted, McKendrick suspects, by those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. "We're so influenced by the media, and the media is controlled by a very small number of companies," he says.

"Our impressions about our world and the people who make up our world are manufactured, so I think we have to find our own personal experiences and those may be things like going to see a play like Race."

Race is highly interactive, not only for the cast and director, but also for audiences. Simultaneous conversations on stage and characters finishing each others' sentences makes for a dynamic theatrical experience that engages audience members while keeping them on their toes. "You're constantly shifting your focus to keep up with the play," says McKendrick.

In the spirit of Mamet's original intent to stimulate discussion about race, there will be talk-back sessions after the show.