Hot Button: David Mamet’s ‘Race’ Comes to Boston

Race. It’s the name of the latest major work by the country’s most accomplished living playwright, David Mamet, and it debuts locally at Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre on October 14. The work is provocative, especially here, given Boston’s tense racial history. The plot is direct: In a high-powered law office, three attorneys struggle against damning evidence to defend a wealthy white man accused of raping an African-American woman. The story is told in three stark scenes, and the two actors playing the pivotal characters bring a lifetime’s worth of relevant experience to the performance.

Playing white law partner Jack Lawson is Rhode Island native Ken Cheeseman. He moved to Boston in the early ’80s, eventually landing roles in TV movies like Common Ground, based on the history of the ’70s busing crisis, and A Case of Deadly Force, about the 1975 killing of an innocent black man by Boston cops. “We shot it right in Mission Hill and met the woman whose husband [James Bowden] it was,” Cheeseman says.

Miranda Craigwell plays Susan, the African-American associate of the law firm who hides her true thoughts and actions to devastating effect. As the token minority in a white world, Susan is always called on to “speak for the race,” Craigwell explains. The Dorchester native says she found herself in similar situations while growing up here. “I’ve done it at Weston High School and I’ve done it at Brown [University],” Craigwell says, “and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’ll take that role, but just to let you know, that’s not okay.’”

Director Robert Walsh chose Cheeseman not only because he’s “friendly and charming” like the character he plays, but also because he was able to find that “jaded underbelly” of a lawyer who will do anything to win. Craigwell, meanwhile, nailed “all the different facets of Susan, the mysterious figure in the play,” Walsh says. The director is looking forward to how the actors will square off onstage. “There’s a latent power that is under the surface,” he says, “and there’ll be a lovely dynamic between them.”