Do you know what you can say to a black man on the subject of race?
White lawyer: Nothing.
Black lawyer: That is correct.
Those provocative lines come from the opening scene of David Mamet's stirring drama Race, running through Feb. 20 at the Philadelphia Theatre Company.
Race examines the complicated, confusing, often combative prism of race through the eyes of black and white law partners who grapple with whether or not they should defend a white man accused of raping a black woman. And when a black female legal assistant gets involved, emotions go from simmer to boil.
Suffice it to say, Race is one of those plays you can digest only by talking about it - ideally, with someone not of your own race.
Problem is, the topic is so prickly that most folks would rather do an end-run around it than try to tackle it head-on.
But that's when we allow misconceptions and uncertainty to take over. Can I be honest without offending? Did I mean to say that? Did I take what he said the wrong way? Does she think that way because I'm (fill in your race)?
Oh, and the mega-million-dollar concern: If I say what I think, will I be accused of being racist?
I've wondered all of that. And have been accused of all of that.
I've attempted to have these kinds of conversations with friends and readers alike.
Believe me, it's awkward at best, teeth-gnashing at worst.
So bravo to the Philadelphia Theatre Company
for jump-starting the difficult conversation by hosting a community dialogue Monday in which audience members discussed how the play's themes intersected with their everyday lives.
Themes like guilt. Shame. Power. Privilege. Betrayal. Trust. Vulnerability.
Audience members broke up into small groups and were asked to introduce themselves by how they most identified.
Among those in my group: Priscilla, a white woman of means from New Jersey who's been fascinated with race relations ever since she was a little girl, overhearing her family's black servants talk about whites. Ed, a recent transplant from Green Bay, Wis., who always wondered why the black football players would leave after the season was over. O, a biracial woman from Bucks County, who was raised by her Polish grandmother. And Milton, an African American who came of age in the 1960s and believes that the country "hasn't made an attempt to repair the psychological damage" caused by racism.
As you can imagine, any time a group of strangers gets together to talk about something so personal, there are a lot of pregnant pauses. And a lot of verbal hiccups, mostly from whites in the group. Probably because white folks have always had the choice of whether they wanted to acknowledge race - or not.
Blacks seldom do.
"It's that white-male-privilege thing that drives me up the wall," says Brenda, a black artist and educator, who, interestingly enough, is married to a white German immigrant. "Some of my white colleagues will not recognize me if I change my hairdo. . . . [Some] whites recognize blacks only if they look the same way. Is that a form of white privilege?"
Ed pondered the question. "For white males, it's an added burden dealing with it, talking about it openly, and doing something about it," he said. "That's a job when you're in that position. I don't know if it's a blessing or a curse."
Just when people were starting to feel safe in their vulnerability, it was time for the session to end.
That's the thing with conversations that require mutual trust - it's so hard to start from scratch.
Afterward, when audience members reconvened, moderator Harris Sokoloff asked whether the conversation would continue.
"When you see people tomorrow, will you tell them what you did and say whether it was worth it?" he asked.
One white woman was only half-sure.
"I will talk to white people about it, but I would hesitate to talk to black people because I would worry that they would think I'm trying to chalk up brownie points, like I'm this white savior trying to do a good deed," she said.
"Which is why it's so hard to have this conversation," Sokoloff replied.
Indeed. But for a group of gutsy participants, it wasn't for lack of trying.