Kerry Washington’s biggest film roles are pretty much what you’d expect from a rising star — rom-coms like I Think I Love My Wife, thrillers like Lakeview Terrace, Oscar bait like Ray and The Last King of Scotland. Bronx-born, Spence-educated, and a little bit granola, Washington naturally dreamed of Broadway, but her theater experience to date has been almost exclusively political: Eve Ensler’s V-Day shows, readings for Howard Zinn, high-school-appropriate skits on teen sex. Her starring role in David Mamet’s implicitly provocative new play, Race (opening Sunday), may be the least political act she’s ever performed onstage — and by far the most surprising.
Back when Washington wrote a college paper on Mamet’s plays, “I didn’t really see how it would be possible” to be in one. “I guess a very non-traditionally cast Glengarry, you know? I mean he didn’t write this with me in mind, but I feel really excited to be alive at this point.” In Race, Washington plays a young black legal assistant, the third wheel in a power struggle between two superiors — David Alan Grier and James Spader — over whether to represent a white man accused of assaulting a black woman.
The topic may be new for the playwright, but the style and structure seem awfully familiar. Reminiscent of Oleanna and Speed-the-Plow, it sounds like a typical Mamet power play, complete with politically charged role reversals. “I would say there are some huge similarities” with previous Mamet, Washington says, “and some huge differences. There are some Mametisms that appear for all of the characters in the play. But there’s something very different about her.”
Washington is even more reluctant to venture into racial politics than she is to discuss what’s new about her character. Up until now, about as many minorities have occupied a Mamet script as have sat in his last stage setting, the Oval Office. Having campaigned for Obama alongside Kal Penn, does Washington feel just a bit like the president? “I would never make that analogy,” she says twice. “Please do not put that in my mouth.” Mamet, who in the past decade has become a prolific expounder on public issues, wrote an op-ed in the Times in September on race, “a subject on which it is near impossible to tell the truth.” Washington will only say of it, “I do not think he’s becoming a spokesperson on race. And I didn’t sign up to work with that part of him. I signed up to work with a playwright. I was not hesitant to play this role, I will say.” The one moment in rehearsals that had Washington cringing (to the point where Grier came over with a reassuring hug)? It involved too many words beginning with the letter “f,” not “n.”