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