Rasheeda Speaking at The New Group
It is towards the end of Rasheeda Speaking when Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins) tells co-worker Ileen (Dianne Wiest) about “Rasheeda”. “She” is the code word for a commuter caffeine-fueled drinking game played by White, male Gen-Xers who verbally and literally point out working-class Black women. In the era of social media, such disgusting public behavior is plausible both in a play set in contemporary Chicago and on the way home after the performance. Still, it stings, as does the other 85 minutes of Joel Drake Johnson’s uncomfortable, remarkable look at race relations at the office.
Jaclyn and Ileen work for Dr. Williams (the perfectly despicable Darren Goldstein). Jaclyn’s six-month probationary period is ending and the Doctor wants to get rid of her – saying she “doesn’t fit in,” meaning she’s Black. He has Ileen keep a notebook documenting her co-worker’s behavior and “overseeing” her duties. Jaclyn figures out what’s going on, leading to a battle of wills and office space.
The play never loses its focus because Johnson never takes sides. Both women are at fault for letting things get out of control. Jaclyn bends the truth, takes her love of plants and crystal healing a bit too far, and is sanctimonious about religion. Ileen is a smug suck up who doesn’t mind when her boss calls her “dear,” keeps a messy workspace and leaves the notebook out in the open. They both speak of a “toxic” atmosphere that is both real and self-created.
While Rasheeda Speaking goes way beyond the required HR seminars about working with others, its exploration of the work environment resonates just as strongly. Dr. Williams is one of those bosses (male or female) who get off on having employees vie for attention. He and his middle-aged employees engage in the kind of childish behavior (touching one’s stuff, arguments about coffee flavors, how late is late?) anyone who has spent time in an office will recognize. During the performance many female audience members said aloud “Yes!” or “That’s right.”
This production marks the directorial debut of Cynthia Nixon. Miranda from Sex and the City has genuine sensitivity towards real-life issues that show never touched. The small Linney Courtyard stage suits the in-your-face drama – and is perfect for watching Tonya Pinkins and Diane Wiest give great, potentially career-defining performances. Their characters are neither good nor bad. They are just trying to get through the day…no matter what it takes.
Rasheeda Speaking is at The Pershing Square Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre from February 11, 2015 through March 22, 2015, for further information or to book visit here.