nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
September 10, 2009
Race Music looks back not only in time (the setting is 1999), but in form. Playwright Warren Bodow writes that he is influenced by the realistic ensemble drama of August Wilson, Paddy Chayefsky, and Arthur Miller. Indeed, Race Music's socially conscious realism clearly owes a debt to these forebears. In emulating the past, however, the play never quite inhabits its own provocative present.
In Race Music, a man is denied an announcing job at a classical music station because he is black. The man in question, Lebron Malek, has the perfect qualifications�encyclopedic knowledge of classical music, velvet voice, and plenty of charm�but bigoted station manager Harvey Kane refuses to hire, in his hateful words, "nig-blacks."
Lebron is offended. The secretary is offended. Lebron's mother is offended. But nobody really does anything about it, other than say they're offended . Sure, Lebron seduces the secretary and tries to get in the station via the back door...but wouldn't someone go to the ACLU first? File suit for racial discrimination? Call the local press? The characters' blithe, almost turgid, inaction strains credibility. Race Music touches a raw nerve, but the play's afraid to go for the jugular.
Still, Bodow shows promise. His writing is particularly confident when he's covering something he knows well, like the competitive world of late '90s radio (Bodow was President of WQXR). Harvey's angry monologue about the dumbing down of broadcasting feels authentic, as does the moment where Lebron learns the exhilarating rush of operating a soundboard.
Victor Lirio's crisp direction moves the play along at an amiable clip, although he can't iron out all the rough spots. The action often halts when characters step out of a scene for a soliloquy�soliloquies that feel more perfunctory than revelatory.
The ensemble does a fine job with their characters. Brandon Jones's Lebron exudes easygoing charm, while Teresa Stephenson brings a fierce intelligence to Caroline, the ambitious secretary. Chris Ceraso's bitter, foul-mouthed Harvey could have stepped out of Glengarry Glen Ross. Penelope Lowder makes Mrs. Malek her own woman, not just Malek's mother.
Elizabeth Rhodes's clever sound design has fun with re-creating a radio station, while Bodow and his colleague, Tom Shepard, have done an excellent job of selecting classical music recordings to underscore the scene transitions.
In the end, Race Music is not exactly the "hot button" play it wants to be, but it's an interesting work from a very promising and provocative company, Diverse City.