by: JK Clarke
Want to spend an evening of theater gritting your teeth, feeling generally tense? If so, then Rasheeda Speaking is for you. Anyone who has worked in an office has experienced a dynamic like the one in this play, and there’s nothing amusing about it. Okay, so not all theater is supposed to be pleasant. Making the audience uncomfortable is often the goal of a playwright, forcing the audience to confront their own beliefs and prejudices. Unfortunately, that’s only half the source of angst created by Rasheeda Speaking, the New Group’s latest production at The Pershing Square Signature Center.
At the play’s opening, we meet Ileen (the always excellent Dianne Wiest), a somewhat disorganized, yet efficient secretary in a small surgeon’s office. Her boss, Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein), explains that her co-worker, Jacylyn (Tonya Pinkins), will be returning to work following a bout of chronic anxiety stemming from “toxins” in the air. Dr. Williams tells Ileen that he’d like to replace Jaclyn and that he needs Ileen to take notes on Jaclyn’s behavior. We get the impression he’s somewhat daunted. When she arrives we understand the problem: she’s a forceful personality for whom the most innocuous comment is an accusation and her defensiveness makes everyone defensive. What’s more, she’s African American, and Dr. Williams (who may or may not be racist) seems uncomfortable about that, too, as if he’s not sure what he can say without getting himself in trouble. Ileen, on the other hand, is eager to please, but she is stuck in the awkward position of snitching on a “friend,” but one who bullies her. It’s a situation barrelling toward a disastrous unravelling.
The premise has potential, but Joel Drake Johnson’s script is flawed, and not improved by first time director Cynthia Nixon. It’s too bad, because the cast does a terrific job under the circumstances. One doesn’t get the impression that Mr. Johnson or Ms. Nixon have spent much time in offices lately. There are far too many credibility gaps and characters are undeveloped in a play where it’s critical that we buy into setting and circumstance.
This is supposed to be a study of workplace racial bias and the consequences of societal prejudices but it lacks insight. We are meant to see Jaclyn as a victim and, simultaneously a hypocritical racist. However, she’s more victimiser than victim and an intimidating manipulator. The play is, in fact, (probably) unintentionally racist in its failure to treat the bully as a bully: a true equal to the others. Here, Jaclyn is not a downtrodden member of a repressed class, but an entitled psychopath. What’s more, Jaclyn’s story about a group of white business men who label middle-aged black women “Rasheeda” is at least 30 years out-of-date.
Maybe Rasheeda Speaking would have been tolerable if the characters were properly developed or had their personalities evolved throughout the course of the play. When weak-willed and trepidatious Ileen feels threatened, her husband gives her a handgun to carry, even though nothing in her character would suggest she even knows how to shoot it.
It’s surprising that Cynthia Nixon, a veteran stage actor of great renown, would choose this play for her directorial debut. The material is weak and does nothing to showcase her potential. Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest are, as always, a delight on stage, but simply not enough to rescue this tragedy.
Rasheeda Speaking. Presented by The New Group through March 22 at The Pershing Square Signature Center (The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street at 10th Avenue). www.thenewgroup.org
Photo: Monique Carboni