“Rasheeda Speaking,” the 2014 play written by the late Joel Drake Johnson and revived by Shattered Globe, is a minefield of drama, focusing on how the macro issues of race, class and gender affect the micro-world of labor relations. Well-acted and energetic, relevant and possessing moments of raw power, this is a piece that I would love to enjoy. But ultimately its thematic complexity boils down to moral confusion, and the takeaways are sour and nihilistic, a sense that America’s racial dilemma is a hopeless zero-sum game that we’re all doomed to play. lose.
The “Rasheeda” of the title is a non-existent, or rather mythical character: she is – follow me here – the embodiment of what the black protagonist Jaclyn perceives as the yuppies’ racist perception of her and others like her. white males on the bus she takes every day to work. “Rasheeda” is the degrading identity trap that Jaclyn, who works as a surgical assistant in an upscale Chicago neighborhood, is desperate to avoid. But in the tightly controlled, predominantly white milieu where she works, the pressure to become “Rasheeda” — an updated Aunt Jemima type, who reassures white people with her smiling submission — is strong. These onerous and unspoken expectations breed the potential for serious, even violent, conflict in Jaclyn’s workplace, which she shares with the smarmy Dr. Williams, who thinks Jaclyn (whom he repeatedly calls “Jacky”) ” doesn’t belong”, and Ileen, the white office manager who worships her boss and reluctantly becomes the agent of his scheme to get rid of her colleague.
What is Jaclyn’s crime? No incompetence – she’s clearly capable and dependable, if at times lacking in courtesy. But there’s something about this strong, expressive black woman that makes the doctor uneasy. “She seems unhappy,” he tells Ileen, whom he wants to document Jaclyn’s every move. “I don’t think she likes me.”
But it’s the snarky, image-obsessed doctor, ensconced in his immaculate office (beautifully executed by set designer Scott Penner), who dislikes Jaclyn, feeling that she’s not as manipulative as his director of beloved office. In Jaclyn’s insistence on being treated like a full human being, Dr. Williams feels “anger” and “attitude.” And in the doctor’s refusal to be himself with her, Jaclyn discerns not only typical doctor condescension, but deep, unacknowledged racism.
Director AmBer Montgomery extracts all the nuances and implications of the setup, as Jaclyn returns from sick leave due to ‘toxic fumes’ at the office, only to find something has changed, and the doctor and Ileen, qu she once considered a friend. – seem to be bound by a sinister and secret pact. Deanna Reed-Foster is superb as Jaclyn, deftly handling the varying levels and nuances of her character, from affectionate co-worker to wry “Rasheeda” figure to truth. As Ileen, Jaclyn’s nemesis, Daria Harper grasps the awkwardness of her position, where being loyal to your boss means betraying your colleague. Drew Schad pulls off his villainous role as Dr. Williams well, cutting through insecurity and ruthless opportunism behind the strained smile and professional demeanor. And Barbara Roeder Harris is compelling as an aging, naïve patient whose presence at the office boils simmering tensions.
The piece could be a compelling look at how opposing stereotypes reinforce each other, freezing in tribalism and hatred. But the spectacle wanders off, becomes heavy, insistent and muddled.
A major issue is the characterization of Jaclyn. She’s at least as much bully as victim, blatantly spotlighting the more vulnerable Ileen, while subjecting her to a barrage of verbal barbs, lies, and sheer cruelty. At one point, Jaclyn reduces her co-worker to tears, then laughs at her misery, then lies about the laughter…and later describes all of her beatings as mere clowning around, somehow more benign than the doctor’s microaggressions. All of the characters become flatter, meaner, and less human over the hour-and-forty-minute drama (presented without intermission), as it heads toward its ambiguous and anticlimactic, but distinctly dark, conclusion.
I confess that I had hoped that the two women, both victimized in different ways by their devious boss, would overcome their mistrust and ally against the doctor who pitted them against each other. But in the world of this play, racism is so entrenched that there are no allies, only antagonists.
There are many intense dramatic moments in “Rasheeda Speaking,” and some sharp insights amid the ever spiraling hostility. But what’s missing is a realization that, when all is said and done, we’re all stuck in this thing together. A dose of compassion and a dash of forgiveness are useful, in life and in art. (Hugh Iglarsh)
Shattered Globe Theater at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont, (773) 975-8150, sgtheatre.org, $45 with discounts available. Until June 4.