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Building Character: David Alan Grier

Date: Dec 08, 2009


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Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles.


David Alan Grier isn't just starring in a new Broadway play. He's starring in Race, a new Broadway play by David Mamet, and that comes with a very specific set of demands.

Grier plays Henry Brown, an African-American attorney who joins his white partner (James Spader) in defending a white man accused of raping a black woman, and there are moments when Grier disagrees with Henry's outlook on how black people can and should behave in the world.

His character's opinions are especially clear when Henry spars with Susan, a young black lawyer who rejects Henry's conservative take on everything from affirmative action to office politics. For Grier, those clashes create some of the most relevant moments in the play. "I love that there's a dialogue between two characters of the same race," he says. "'You are not behaving properly. I am the proper black man. You are wrong.' You don't see that argument very much on stage."

But how do actors get that argument across? Mamet's plays, with their machine gun pacing and thorny intellectual debates, can overwhelm actors with a tidal wave of words. Nor can performers rely on the tics and quirks of "psychological acting," since Mamet strips those details out of his writing. His characters tend to say exactly what they mean and do exactly what they say, without subtext.

In a way, that can be a relief. "I don't have to torture myself about 'How do I play this,'" Grier says. "It's all in the writing."

But that makes mastering the complex language even more important. Grier says, "What I'm trying to do is take the economy and the musicality of the dialogue and make it real---make it sound spontaneous and not robotic."

To do that, he's continued to run his lines before performances, despite having them memorized, just to make sure he has the rhythm of the language in his mind.

Of course, an actor is more than just a voice, and Grier's physical work on the production has also been demanding.

He's especially attentive to keeping still. "One of the things we really talked about was when to 'take stage' and 'relinquish stage,' and how your behavior on another person's line will affect how the audience responds to that line," Grier says. "If I look at James in a particular scene and get really invested, then that gives the audience a cue as to how they're supposed to react. It's more important that they hear. There's so much information that you just have to give over to the other character."

Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor.