RACE’s Cara Ricketts on Working with Priestley, Artist Life and Racism

Earlier this month, we took in the opening night performance of award-winning playwright David Mamet’s RACE at the Bluma Appel Theatre. Directed by Daniel Brooks, the Canadian Stage production stars international film and television star Jason Priestley (Call Me Fitz, Beverley Hills, 90210), and co-stars Matthew Edison (Murdoch Mysteries, Saving Hope), Nigel Shawn Williams (Topdog/Underdog, Cruel and Tender) and young Toronto native Cara Ricketts (Stratford Festival, Cruel and Tender). RACE is programmed as part of CanStage’s 25th anniversary season and is sure to spark debate. Issues of racism are of central focus as the wealthy and white Charles Strickland (Edison) is accused of raping a young black woman and seeks representation from the only firm and two lawyers in town willing to take his case – one black and one white. Loaded with shocking dialogue (with no shortage of the “c- or n-word”), the play explores social, racial and sexual politics and very much highlights modern-day forms of racist thought and action.

You leave the show questioning your own once seemingly harmless thoughts and opinions when it comes to issues of race in the workplace, in social settings and in general. It is the hope of director Brooks that the play inspires “a great conversation” among the younger generation of theatregoers. After all, it is an important conversation to have.

We must admit, the initial draw of the show was to watch heartthrob of times past Jason Priestley, who calls performing on stage “an incredible thrill, especially when given such an exhilarating role,” but were blown away by the other incredible talent that graced the stage, most notably Cara Ricketts. We caught up with the twenty-something Ricketts, who filled us in on everything from working opposite of Priestley, to life as a performer, and whether she experiences racism herself.

What was the most challenging part about preparing for RACE?
At first glance RACE seems to be saying something about the intelligence of the black characters in the play; especially Susan, by the “mistakes” she makes in calling the D.A. and the questions she asks regarding the other side winning if they find out about the angle jack has taken in order to win the case. Initially it may seem as if Susan isn’t really qualified for her job, but because of her race and affirmative action, she gets the job. Thankfully Daniel (the director) also felt that there had to be more to it than that, and we created a character that does the things she does for greater reasons. In order to prepare for the show, I had to get into the headspace of a fighter. The show starts off hot, so there isn’t time to settle into the room, so I prepare before hitting the deck.

What makes RACE appealing and relevant to young people (25-40), and what do you hope that demographic takes away from the performance?
As we enter into the post-racial era that so often comes up in media, it important to discuss what exactly that means. It obviously isn’t completely true and it’s important to note why; why do we believe that we are entering a post-racial era? What’s stopping us from getting there? What am I doing that helps or hinders that process? 

How is working alongside a Canadian star like Jason Priestley? Did you grow up watching 90210?
I kind of missed the 90210 thing. I mean, I knew who he was, but I think I was either too young or too much of a nerd for the show to have a real effect on me. Jason has been wonderful to work with; he’s funny and a really kind person.

What advice do you have for fellow young people currently pounding the pavement in the entertainment world?
Work hard. Don’t pass on any opportunity to continue to build your skills and don’t give up.

Did you ever grapple between entering a career in the arts vs. the corporate world?
The older I get, the more I ask myself that question. In the beginning it was only about my art, but now as I see my sister with my beautiful niece, I think about starting my own family and whether I can support that dream with what I do. I also wonder about the amount of time I already devoted to my art, and how will that balance out with the time needed to be with my family. Yet, there has been a real gift in pursuing acting for me, and that has been understanding human nature. I get to play characters people identify with or wish they could be, desire or despise. After doing that work, I have found my ability to empathize or try to understand why people do things has really grown, and the world is a more, I suppose tender, more beautiful place because of that.

Do you think racism still exists among young Canadians? Do you ever experience it?
I think racism still exists. It exists among younger people but in a kind of subconscious way. A good example of this is when white kids wear blackface “all in good fun.” I think that older people are more aware of it and how to use it. I experience it quite often, both as an attack where people have decided that I need to be reminded of what my colour is and “through the walls,” where I’m surrounded by enough white people that they sometimes forget I’m in the room and will share a racist joke or something along those lines. It also will depend on how I dress or how I speak.

Catch RACE at The Bluma Appel Theatre now through May 5th.