Friday, February 10, 2012

Reflections on Mamet's Take on Race (and Gender and Sex and Exploitation)


When a rich, powerful white man rapes a woman of color, how do our culture and our legal system react? These questions are central in David Mamet’s play Race, which is running at the Goodman Theater through February 19. Earlier this week, CAASE participated in a panel discussion at the theater with other advocates, examining constructs of sexual violence. (Spoiler alert—we talk about details from the play in this post.)

A few of us from the CAASE staff have seen the play, and in addition to dealing with the issues of race, sexual assault, and sexism, we believe the play also touches on exploitation within the sex trade. Some in the audience didn’t notice prostitution in the plot, or disagreed that it was present. However, Charles (the character who is accused of rape) admits that he gave the victim money and that he exploited her. At one point he asks his attorney, “Just because I gave her money, does that mean I paid her?”

I personally noticed that once it was revealed that the victim was in prostitution, the attorney characters shifted their attitudes in a way that could be summarize as: “Sure, he was a racist, but how could he have raped a prostituted woman?” This underscored the terrible myth that a woman in prostitution cannot be raped—that once money is exchanged, a woman gives up her right to say no.

These and many other criticisms were raised at the panel discussion. Caleb Probst, CAASE’s education outreach associate, spoke on the panel about how he teaches young men in high school about the realities of the sex trade. Caleb was in excellent company, as the panel featured Aishah Shahidah Simmons, producer, writer and director of NO! The Rape Documentary; Sharmili Majmudar, executive director of Rape Victim Advocates; Rachel Caidor, founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, and was moderated by Alison Cuddy, host of WBEZ's Eight Forty-Eight.

Several members of the panel were concerned that Mamet used sexual assault as a plot device to talk about race, and that the play perpetuated many myths about sexual assault. As Sharmili Majmudar pointed out, Race makes it seem like it’s very easy for a woman to make an accusation of rape. Sharmili also reflected on how we never hear the victim’s voice in Race, and this absence dehumanizes the victim.

Aishah Shahidah was deeply concerned about the use of racist and misogynist language in the play and felt like those hateful words were coming from Mamet himself. When an audience member asked if rape should ever be portrayed in art, Aishah recommended Ruined, a play by Lynne Nottage about rape in the Congo.

Rachel Caidor reported that when she attended the play, the audience seemed confused by the intersection of racism and sexism, and that people were laughing at moments that made her concerned. (I also noticed that people were laughing, sometimes out of discomfort.) Rachel balked at the idea that the character who was accused of rape didn’t know that he was racist. “You’re not an accidental racist or a rapist.”

Certainly, Mamet is a divisive playwright, but I believe the discussion that ensued at the Goodman was excellent. Have you seen or read this play? Do you think that it does a good job of addressing these issues, or does it fail? Again, Race runs at the Goodman through next week (student and day-of tickets are available at a discount),

Leave us a comment and have a great weekend!

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