Directed by Cynthia Nixon
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“But what if I was? What if I was standing in the bathroom with my ear up to the door? What if I heard every word you said, what would you do? How would you feel? Would you be embarrassed?” – Jaclyn
When a play asks rich, deep, and enduring questions – truly rich and deep and enduring questions – there should be “a kind of a hush” over the audience throughout the performance. Indeed, the appropriate response to the curtain call might be that same awe-fulled hushed silence. Joel Drake Johnson’s “Rasheeda Speaking” asks enduring questions that are rich and deep; however, at times, the audience response was not hushed. In fact, after several “black-outs” which were clearly scene changes, the audience applauded thunderously hoping Mr. Johnson’s well developed and rich characters would indeed stop asking any more challenging questions about race and racism in America.
And thunderous applause is deserved overall for the gifted performances in this important new play. But its message is a difficult one and the cast, under Cynthia Nixon’s exacting and inventive direction, explore the macrocosm of racism in the microcosm of a Chicago medical office. Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins) and Ileen (Dianne Wiest) have at best a “friendly” relationship as co-workers in the office of surgeon Dr. Darren Williams (played with a wound-tight closet liberalism by Darren Goldstein). This relationship – which includes the sharing of stories and humor – is put to the test when Dr. Williams decides he made a mistake in hiring Jaclyn and promotes Ileen to Office Manager to chronicle Jaclyn’s missteps which the good doctor can then forward to Human Relations to speed the relocation (or dismissal) of his new employee.
It does not take long for Jaclyn to discern what is happening in the office and “Rasheeda Speaking” is the ninety-minute wondrous journey of the reversal of power and authority in human dynamics and a riveting exploration into the dynamics of racism and culture. Director Cynthia Nixon steers her actors into the murky waters of racism, always insisting they honor playwright Joel Drake Johnson’s commitment to exposing the underbelly of racism and bringing to the surface every nuance, every excuse, every disclaimer proffered by those who simply refuse “to get along” because of differences in race and culture.
Ms. Pinkins and Ms. Weist deliver remarkably authentic and honest performances both when on stage together and when facing off with their foils Dr. Williams and patient Rose (portrayed with razor sharp naiveté by Patricia Conolly). Ms. Pinkins’ Jaclyn topples Ileen’s and Dr. Williams’ trove of racism and often exposes her own unresolved issues with race and culture. The moral ambiguity here is scintillating and challenging. As she defends herself and her job against blatant racism, Jaclyn shares her own discomfort with her Mexican neighbors and chooses to distance herself from any identification with Muslims (she being a devout bible-reading, Rosary-bead toting Roman Catholic).
Allen Moyer’s set could not be more perfect: the set is so perfect it begs definition of a theatrical set. It is a physician’s office, warped vinyl molding and all. The rest of the creative team counterpoint the set with the level of realism needed to adequately serve the surreal action of the script.
In the end, Jaclyn continues her job with the same proficiency and aplomb she had during her first six months of employment; Dr. Williams is held hostage by Human Resources; and Ileen is reduced to a gun-toting nervous wreck dominated by her family’s fear-driven racist agenda. The only difference: Jaclyn has clearly identified the toxins in the air and those poisons are not emanating from the copier just behind her desk.
What if those whom we have marginalized heard every word we said about them? Would we be embarrassed? That might just be the one of the most enduring questions raised in the brilliant and engaging “Rasheeda Speaking.” And be prepared to discover how the play got its title. Dear reader, you have been forewarned.