CHURCHILL

churchill

Adapted and performed by Ronald Keaton
Directed by Kurt Johns

In the tradition of one-person shows based on historical figures, this lively Chicago import offers exactly what its title advertises. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about CHURCHILL but, like others of its ilk (GIVE ‘EM HELL, HARRY, THE BELLE OF AMHERST, etc.) it succeeds in drawing a colorful portrait of its subject and framing major events in a human context.

The play is set in Winston Churchill’s study, where the former prime minister is dabbing away at a landscape painting. Art is one of the items he relies on to help him relax during stressful times. The others, cigars and whiskey, are, of course, also in abundant supply. As Churchill muses, he recounts his rise from misfit schoolboy to legendary statesman. Born to a loving American-born mother and a distant, aristocratic father, young Winnie displays a contumacious nature from an early age. This gets him in trouble at boarding school, but proves useful in his later political career. Growing into manhood, he has neither the inheritance to become a member of the landed gentry nor the academic distinction required for a career in law. So he gravitates to the only career choice left to gentlemen of his class: The military. While serving as a second lieutenant in the Fourth Hussars, he becomes a war correspondent and eventually a bestselling author. But his true desire is to follow in his father’s footsteps and go into politics. He proves adept, if volatile, at statecraft, but by the late 1920’s changing social tides have left his party defeated and his career derailed. Soon, however, Fascism begins to rumble across Europe. Disastrous appeasement policies put Britain in a vulnerable position and the stage is set for a man of Winston’s keen intellect and fighting spirit to take the reigns of government.

Out of a rich vein of source material actor/adaptor Ronald Keaton has adroitly fashioned a trim, straight-ahead narrative peppered with legendary quotations as well as lesser-known musings on friendships, failures and the ever-changing world order. Keaton has his subject’s speech and mannerisms down pat. More crucially, he finds a kind of vulnerability beneath the prime minister’s iconic bulldog stare. Both in the script and in the performance, the portrait that emerges is of a born politician who practiced rigorous self-appraisal even as he ferociously took the world to task for its moral failings. Would that the same could more often be said of today’s world leaders.

CHURCHILL continues through May 31, 2015 at New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St., New York, NY 10019. Tickets: telecharge.com

RASHEEDA SPEAKING

rasheeda_speaking

Written by Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by Cynthia Nixon

In today’s “post racial” climate, most of us don’t wear our biases on our sleeves. But underneath the veneer of positivity, people still stereotype and prejudge others. In Joel Drake Johnson’s insightful new comedy, racial politics intersect with workplace skirmishes in a Chicago surgeon’s office.

As the play begins, Ileen (Dianne Weist), Doctor Williams (Darren Goldstein) are discussing what to do about Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins). Ileen has just been promoted to office manager, whereas Jaclyn, due to return after a sick leave, is out of favor with the doctor. Frustrated with Jaclyn’s demeanor and productivity, the doctor spouts bigoted assumptions: that Blacks are prone to copping attitudes in order to feel powerful, that racially- sensitive bylaws make it impossible to fire African-American women regardless of their job performance. The doctor’s overt racism – sexism, too, in the way that he infantilizes his female employees – stands out in relation to Ileen’s more (seemingly) beneficent agenda. Sure, Jaclyn has her rough edges, but doesn’t she deserve a second chance? Kindly Ileen will look out for her—provided of course Jaclyn remembers who’s boss.

With all this tension in the atmosphere, it appears that Jaclyn is skating on very thin ice. But she soon proves more adept than her coworkers at the manipulation game. She can be strident or supplicating, confrontational or flirtatious as the occasion demands, even altering her appearance to suit the situation. One minute she bridles at Ileen’s criticisms, the next she arrives with gifts of reconciliation to smooth over the conflict. Afraid of coming across like the Mean White Boss Lady, Ileen walks on eggshells at first. But little by little she begins to question the truths she once took for granted. By the time Ileen realizes she’s underestimated her underling, the tables have already begun to turn. As the stakes grow higher, layers of civility crumble to reveal the real agendas underneath. Even an elderly patient (Patricia Conolly), who cluelessly spouts politically incorrect rhetoric, turns out to be more than what she seems.

No one in RASHEEDA SPEAKING is without sin. All the characters, regardless of race, make blanket statement about other ethnic groups. But there is no doubt that society’s odds still favor the white male elite. In the play’s most devastatingly true-to-life moment, Jaclyn relates an incident involving the young White businessmen with whom she shares her morning commute. Snickering at the middle-aged black women on the bus, the fellows label them all with the Muslim name Rasheeda. Jaclyn deduces from their rhetoric that “Rasheedas” are women who work as bank tellers, receptionists and other service professions, making them gatekeepers of the White guys’ goods and thus momentarily reversing the power dynamic. Though Jaclyn, a Christian, doesn’t see herself as a Rasheeda, the Caucasians on the bus tar her with the same brush. There’s a stark power in this recollection, even if wily Jaclyn may have ulterior motives for is telling it. We’ve all overheard, maybe even colluded with, conversations like this. The absence of the N word makes the japery sound acceptable, but the effect is hurtful to the person on the receiving end. And it is this inconvenient truth about Obama-era America that makes it impossible to entirely indict Jaclyn. She’s playing the hand she’s been dealt, albeit with questionable ethics.

Under Cynthia Nixon’s crisp direction, the ensemble nimbly nails every beat of the play’s tensely funny trajectory. Pinkins is especially delightful to watch as she navigates Jaclyn’s many transmutations. The play stalls a bit in its midsection, as the easily-flustered Ileen doesn’t give Jaclyn enough to push against. But that’s a minor complaint in an otherwise solidly-built show that serves up generous helpings of comedic delicacy along with its food for thought.

RASHEEDA SPEAKING continues through March 22 at The Pershing Square Signature Center: 480 W. 42nd Street
Between 9th and 10th Ave. Tickets: http://www.thenewgroup.org/tickets.html