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'Race' cast
Ann Carpenter, Dee Crawford, Claude Del, Justin Dilley, Kate Donnelly, Ron Jones, Alejandro Simoes, and Robin JaVonne Smith. (Darren Evans )

Honesty of 'Race' gets under the skin

The milk-crate seating, arrayed around and within a square catwalk at the bare-brick Charlestown Working Theater, is an immediate tip-off: You're not about to sit back and experience the Theater of Complacency. Nor -- unless you are young and strong of spine -- are you likely to survive the next 90 minutes without a serious twinge or two. But perhaps a little unease is apropos for a stage adaptation of Studs Terkel's 1992 book "Race," a collection of brutally honest interviews about what the preeminent oral historian pegged "the great American obsession."

Playwright Jamie Pachino's 1994 condensation suffers a bit from a civics-class earnestness (and in fact, a shortened version of the script regularly tours schools). However, you couldn't ask for a peppier presentation than that conceived by director Darren Evans, founder of the fledgling company Theatre on Fire. As Leonard Cohen intones "Everybody knows that the dice are loaded" (Evans's playlist is inspired throughout), nine performers planted in the audience members stir and start pacing on the raised platform, declaiming snippets of memory and opinion.

The script is sufficiently scattershot (as in real life, scenes are scarcely shaped) that it's up to the actors to seize the spotlight and create credible moments. All the players are effective, and two display a real gift for the kind of quick takes required by the script's Attention Deficit Disorder pacing. Ron Jones, an ImprovBoston regular, adopts the hortatory rhythms of a Southern minister recalling the violence-ridden voter registration campaigns of the '60s. ("You can't break my leg and then accuse me of limping!") and later just as deftly lapses into the semi-cogent mumblings of a junkie. Phil Thompson, who resembles a hale Irish pol, pulls off two intense characterizations of historical figures: Mike Wrobleski, a Chicago police captain who battled prejudice within the ranks, and one time Klansman C.P. Ellis, whose work as a union organizer opened his eyes to our subcutaneous bonds. In two succinct, breath-suspending scenes, Thompson manages to suggest a context, a back story -- the essence of a life.

If Dee Crawford's depiction of Mamie Till -- mother of Emmett, who was martyred as a teenager in 1955 Mississippi -- appears somewhat calculatedly subdued, it's in keeping with the life of this strong, self-controlled crusader for forgiveness against fierce odds. Hers is a story that's indelible, once heard, and the details (prefaced by Billie Holliday moaning "Strange Fruit") will forever shock.

The staging poses some problems for the audience: The spoken word is sometimes superseded by music spilling out of the speakers, sightlines can be occluded by other spectators, and since the lighting comes from all sides, you may occasionally find yourself uncomfortably illumined. Still, these challenges are all part of an experience meant to pull you into the action -- to force you to examine your own attitudes and study them for latent strains of racism. It's a bold experiment, carried off with commendable conviction.