By Jean Sidden
Two desks, a water cooler, coffee maker, pastries on the counter, various low light plants barely hanging on to life – a doctor’s office. This familiar setting is the world of Joel Drake Johnson’s Rasheeda Speaking. However, Johnson’s play is in direct contradiction to its generic physical environment. Rasheed Speaking’s complexity provokes thought well after the curtain call. It requires attention to detail and a memory for what the characters reveal to tie up all its loose ends.
When the story begins we see Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein) and one of his office administrators, Ileen (Dianne Wiest), in conference. Being discussed is their second office administrator, Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins). Dr. Williams wants to let Jaclyn go and has found a replacement for her. Ileen, who is white, and Jaclyn, who is black, are office buddies though Ileen agrees to be the doctor’s mole and gather evidence for him to present to “H.R.” so the case for getting rid of Jaclyn has more legitimacy. The doctor promotes Ileen to a newly created Office Manager position. When Jaclyn arrives for work after a sick leave, finds out she is being shut out of their usual early morning patient meetings and that her friend is now her manager, she goes on a subtly modulated offensive to keep her job, something she reveals is most important to her. All of Jaclyn’s perceived mistakes and missteps from then on are recorded by Ileen in a small notebook and presented to the doctor in regularly scheduled early morning gossip sessions. Every white person in the play has some opinion why black people, meaning Jaclyn, behave the way “they” do from it being “their” need for power and control to “their” still being angry about slavery. The play confronts white acceptance of blacks in the work place while at the same time making clear the strict limitations placed on black success in a white world.
At first glance, with two powerful actresses in the leads, the story might be received as a nice lady being verbally abused by a mean lady. Wiest is blessed with abundant charm and a vulnerable presence that makes Ileen’s need for Jaclyn to like her somewhat childlike. Wiest has an ability to quickly harden her normally sweet vocal quality to suit Ileen’s move up to management and her impatience with Jaclyn’s resentment. Pinkins has the larger-than-life stature and delivery that makes Jaclyn’s idiosyncrasies (She believes there are poisonous toxins in the air and dangerous rays being emitted from her computer) and fascinating stories come alive. The character is more heavily written than the character of Ileen and is responsible for most of the humor. Her stories are so embellished and well told that the question of whether they are true or not always hangs in the air. Despite the smokescreen of Jaclyn’s fast talk Ileen is watching her constantly. What once were simply the little things a person might do in the course of a work day, like watering the plants too much so they drip, are now compiled as evidence for dismissal. Witnessing Jaclyn’s reaction to being squeezed out of her job heightens the puzzle that makes Johnson’s play so vibrant.
Rasheeda Speaking – Written by Joel Drake Johnson. Directed by Cynthia Nixon.
WITH: Patricia Connelly (Rose), Darren Goldstein (Dr. Williams), Tonya Pinkins (Jaclyn), Dianne Wiest (Ileen)
Scenic Design by Allen Moyer, Lighting by Jennifer Tipton, Costumes by Tony-Leslie James, Sound by David Van Tieghem, Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson, Assistant Stage Manager: Nicole Iovino, Publicist: Bridget Klapinski. Presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center (The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre), 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY, from January 27 – March 22, 2015. Running time 95 minutes, no intermission. www.thenewgroup.org, Ticket Central 212-279-4200.