Reflections on working on David Mamet’s Race by Blackboard devotee and actress, Toccarra Cash
When our illustrious Blackboard founder, Garlia, asked me to write a post on Blackboard’s blog about my very recent experience performing the role of Susan in David Mamet’s intense legal drama, Race at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, I jumped at the chance. Especially being that she asked me if I would do it before I even left in January for the show. Three and half months later, now that the run has officially come to a close (closed April 2nd) and I’ve had some time to absorb and reflect on the experience…it’s hard to put such a profound experience into words.
On the first day of rehearsal, I always have excited butterflies in my stomach, fluttering with the thrill of beginning a new storytelling adventure. However, on the first day of this particular rehearsal, the butterflies were more like…pterodactyls. Distinctly because there was an audience in the room for the first read-through. And I’m not talking about the designers and entire artistic team…that’s normal. In addition to the artistic team, there was an actual audience. Of civilians. Regular ‘ole folks. They are known as the participants of Florida Studio Theatre’s “Behind the Scenes” class, where they follow a production completely, once a week, from the first read-through all the way to Opening Night. So I walk in for my first day’s work on a play where words like “f–k,” “black whore,” and “n—-r b—h,” are about to be thrown around like frisbees…and there they are.
And every single one of them is white.
As a matter of fact, that is pretty much the demographics of Sarasota. Being a city that caters to a large population of retired, well-to-do citizens, the overwhelming majority of Sarasota is white. Everyone spoke to this fact; our director (who is white) almost apologetically revealed this to our cast (which consisted of two black actors and two white actors), along with the fact that his subscriber base is largely white, and that he strongly wishes Sarasota was more diverse. Significantly because a play of this nature needs both sides of the conversation it will inevitably provoke.
In last season’s Broadway run of the show, that diversity was there because…well…this is New York City. Arguably the most diverse city in the U.S. But the big, looming, pressing question upon us was: how will a play that is supposed to open up an honest and unflinching dialogue about race in the 21st century play to a largely white audience…in the South?
Now this is not a slight to the South; I only mention it because the people in the community panel discussions brought up how the issues highlighted in the play are perceived in the South today. Over the course of the production, FST held a series of four discussions open to the public with a panel of community leaders (including a judge, public defender, playwright, t.v. producer/host, law professor, and others) which posed the question: “Can we have an honest discussion of race in our society today?” It was also accompanied by a blog, of which you can still check out and join the ongoing discussion at http://raceatfst.wordpress.com/the-discussion/. This series was wildly successful in terms of turnout, and topics covered, but at every one of them, I always found myself wondering how different it would be if more black people were in attendance. Which ultimately led me to wonder about other things. Things like, how would the audiences be responding during the show if more black people were in attendance? How different would this entire play be if it were written by a black playwright?
These kinds of questions were welcomed and encouraged by our director and FST’s Artistic staff, but I still couldn’t help feeling this tiny twinge of helplessness, due to the fact that they will always be just that: questions. The countless questions that emerged from my exploration of this character and the world of the play would be far too much to post here, but I still walk away from the entire experience carrying those questions with me. Maybe that was Mr. Mamet’s intent all along. The playwright, Carlyle Brown (who is black), asked boldly on the panel, “How often do we tell white people the truth? Really?” He was talking to the few blacks (my fellow castmate and I included) in the audience. And all we could do is laugh. Not necessarily because it was funny (and it was), but in recognition. We have become so accustomed to editing what we have to say before we say it in the presence of white people, that we seldom say what we really feel or believe. And Carlyle may disagree with me, but I think it goes both ways. How often do white people tell us the truth, as well? And therein lies what I walk away from this experience with…
Until we all start to unabashedly tell each other the truth about each other; until we all start to rip these band-aids off the still very infected wounds of this country; until we stop believing that we are in some “post-racial” (God, I hate that term) society; until we stop assuming something about the other and just get real about it…we will never have a truly honest discussion about race.
When we attack all of those “untils” I aforementioned, maybe…just maybe our future generations may have a shot at a society without racism.
But one thing’s for sure (and I’m quite the optimist): it’ll be a long, long time from now.