Oleanna in Los Angeles
William H. Macy directed Lionel Mark Smith. The Mark Taper Forum rejected the casting and Mamet and Macy moved to a smaller venue. At the Tiffany Theatre, this scene assumed even uglier resonance: a black man stood over a white woman who had charged him with rape, a visual reminder of the horror inherent in racial stereotyping.
By David Mamet
The Tiffany Theater, Los Angeles
18 February 1994
Long before Oleanna opened in Los Angeles, the "controversy" began—not however over the subjects raised by the play but over the production itself. Originally scheduled to open in the Mark Taper Forum, it didn't—the result of a dramatic backstage battle. Mamet wanted Lionel Mark Smith, African American actor and longtime friend, to play the role of the professor. The Taper's directors were skeptical and requested a "reading," which Smith perceived to be an "audition." Whichever, it resulted in the Taper's refusal to produce the play with Smith in it, arguing that this "unknown" actor could not carry a two-character play in a 750-seat theater for 64 performances. Smith charged the Taper with racism and Mamet held firm—either Smith would get the part or the play would open elsewhere. He did and it did.
The Los Angeles debut of Oleanna took place in a 99 seat theater in West Hollywood, the Tiffany. This venue too gave rise to gossip—specifically suppositions about possible "trade offs." While Oleanna was playing on one of the Tiffany's two stages, Mamet's first full length play, Lakeboat , directed by Joe Mantegna and featuring Tony Mamet, was playing on the other. Charges of "cronyism" (Mantegna, like Macy and Smith, a member of "Mamet's mafia") and "nepotism" (Tony, the playwright's younger brother) were rife. Whatever the Tiffany's motivations for staging Oleanna or the playwright's for insisting upon Smith, this production was in many ways more poignant, more tragic, more horrible than either Mamet's or Pinter's—reflecting more broadly a society for which the academy is emblematic.
During the preproduction skirmishes, Macy contended that casting Smith would not evoke the issue of racism. Ideally, in a color blind society, this might be true; in reality, it wasn't. A black man in the role of professor forced into consciousness the very real inequities in higher education and in society at large. As Smith said, albeit contemptuously, "Yeah. My casting bends the play. All casting bends the play" ( Los Angeles Times Calendar , 30 Jan. 1994, 48). And so it did—dramatizing aspects of our society most of us would prefer to ignore.
In Mamet's and Pinter's productions of Oleanna, a white male assumed the position of power—at least in the first act. He defined the terms—terms in the language (a "term of art") and terms in the relationship (rewrites and grade changes). He negotiated for real estate and was assured professional security. Not unexpectedly, his sex and race privileged him, and his insensitivity towards Carol's struggle played to this stereotype. How could he understand her feelings of insecurity, her fears of failure? Despite protestations that his success was not without struggle, we, including Carol, didn't really believe that a white man's educational journey could have been in fact as arduous as hers was turning out to be. Consequently, her anger and its results came from a profound and understandable sense of disenfranchisement. In a sexist (and elitist) society, she was disadvantaged. Macy's production, with Smith in the role of the professor, introduced yet another disenfranchised group.
African-Americans represent a shamefully small percentage of college professors—as is in these United States, true of many, if not most, positions of political and social power. Consequently, a black professor plays against stereotype. And, whether or not justified, that his struggle had been a tough one, that Smith's John had suffered from feelings of inferiority, that he had been put upon by teachers, by an insidiously racist society assumed greater credibility. Statistically, historically, factually, African-Americans face greater challenges, greater barriers to success than do white men, even white men of similar social status. All of which make his insensitivity to his student, his inability to hear her, his condescension towards her seem the more heinous. As a black man in a racist society, had he so little empathy for a woman in a sexist one?
Carol and her group's behavior seemed similarly heartless and cruel—locked in a hermetic struggle focused only on their own cause. Perceiving themselves as victims of a discriminatory system, had they no sympathy for, no understanding of others who suffer from discrimination? And finally, what had they won? The satisfaction of having dispossessed a member of another historically dispossessed group? A victory, perhaps, but Pyrrhic at best.
No matter who plays John—Macy himself, David Suchet or Smith— Oleanna 's final tableau devastates. Destroyed, professionally and perhaps personally, a man reduces himself to the level of his adversary, physical violence combating psychological terrorism. But at the Tiffany, this scene assumed even uglier resonance: a black man stood over a white woman who had charged him with rape, a visual reminder of the horror inherent in racial stereotyping. If the academy is emblematic of our society, then this production of Oleanna foregrounded a theme hinted at in Mamet's text but made explicit with this casting. Racism, like sexism, remains rampant and cuts both ways—devastating and demeaning perpetrator and victim alike, finally making them indistinguishable and the outcome, for us all, deeply tragic.
California State University, Sacramento