MAD MEN AND A WOMEN: Lawyers Randall King (left) and L. Peter Callender and understudy ZZ Moor bare their deepest feelings in 'Race.'

“RACE IS the most incendiary topic in our history, and the moment it comes out you cannot close the lid on that box.” This line from David Mamet represents the idea behind his legal drama Race, the season opener at San Jose Stage that seeks to lay bare, though not to solve, the issue of black-white relations in America. 

In the play, white plutocrat Charles Strickland (David Arrow) stands accused of raping a black woman. Two lawyers, one black (L. Peter Callender) and the other white (Randall King), take the case reluctantly, while Susan (ZZ Moor), a young African American lawyer pursues an agenda of her own. 

Director Tony Kelly calls the play “a courtroom drama that never reaches the courtroom,” and this is true in more ways than one. All the action takes place in a law office, and the play is less concerned with defendant Strickland than with the interplay among the other three characters. It isn’t pretty.

The members of the legal team, who have their backs to the wall trying to work out a defense argument, toss away the “politically correct” niceties that usually safeguard discussions of race. King’s character admits to racial profiling, while Callender’s character delivers humorously acerbic lines such as “‘Do all black people hate whites?’ Let me put your mind at rest. You bet we do. White folks are ‘scared’? All to the good.”

In Mamet’s world, it’s not simply one group oppressing another, but a free-for-all in which everyone is prejudiced and resentful in some way and won’t hesitate to exact revenge on the people they hate. Race is most successful at demonstrating just how complicated and difficult its subject can be, quashing those na•ve voices that insist that a “post-racial” or “color blind” society has already arrived. It’s also an intense, gripping story, worth seeing for its caustic, quick-fire dialogue alone, and the Stage’s production—with airtight direction by Kelly and actors who imbue their parts with a danger and grittiness not suggested in the text—could hardly be any better.

You’ll have much to think about after the show, and possibly some skeptical reflections (would professionals, even desperate ones, really speak to each other the way Mamet’s characters do?). In the theater, however, there is only the riveting interaction between people at their most raw.

Race
Runs through Oct. 28; $20-$45
San Jose Stage