No date is given in the program for the setting of Joel Drake Johnson’s play Rasheeda Speaking, which is having its New York premiere at The Pershing Square Signature Center, so it’s hard to tell what era is being portrayed. The overt racism of the four very different characters would suggest late 60s or the 70s, but Allen Moyer’s set of a surgeon’s reception room features computers, so I’d say we’re supposed to be in a contemporary world, which left me with an insurmountable credibility problem.
Right at the start we encounter the surgeon, Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein), complaining to his mousey receptionist, Ileen (Dianne Wiest, seated in photo), about the other receptionist, Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins, top in photo), who has been out for a week suffering from anxiety. Although he doesn’t say so outright, his objections seem to center solely around her being black, with lots of references to ideas like “they” don’t fit in, despite the fact that he was the one who hired her six months before. He asks Ileen to look for problems with Jaclyn’s work and document them so he can fire her. Ileen is uncomfortable with this at first, saying she likes Jaclyn and thinks she’s a good worker. But Williams strong arms her with lots of talk of them and us, making her aware she has no choice. This sets up right from the start one of the play’s main faults, its complete lack of subtly.
In the case of Rasheeda Speaking, the play truly is the thing — the thing that is wrong with the evening. The acting is strong by all four actors, who also include Patricia Conolly as Rose, a befuddled patient. Cynthia Nixon does a good job with her directing debut. They just all need a better play.
It’s easy to see why Williams would want to get rid of Jaclyn, although her skin color has nothing to do with why she would be offensive in a tiny three-person office. She is a complainer of the first rate, going on and on about having to breathe the toxins in the room, placing plants all around to try to counter the effect. Williams had said she is rude to the patients and we see this in her treatment of Rose. She also talks nonstop. I wouldn’t want to work with her.
So why does Williams seem to make an issue of Jaclyn’s race? He’s too young to have been brought up in a segregated world where “they” were thought to be different from “us,” and the play is set in Chicago, not the Deep South. And if he is truly a racist, why did he hire a black woman?
By the time the 95-minute play winds down, Ileen has evolved into a paranoid, gun-carrying racist, Rose reveals her son’s theory that black people act out with anger as their “revenge for slavery” and Jaclyn has displayed her own side of racism, against whites and her Mexican neighbors about whom she lists her litany of stereotypical comments to Ileen. If we are to conclude that everyone is racist, what is the point of the play? As I said, it could certainly do with some subtly. It’s definitely a play of black and white. Had the story been set decades before, and possibly in the South, it might have worked, or at least worked better.
The Rasheeda of the title turns out to be the name Jaclyn overhears several 20-something white professional men use to make fun of middle-aged black women on the bus. That was the most unbelievable element of the play for me. Those young men would have been riding integrated buses all their lives, as their parents would have as well, so they are generations away from noticing and commenting upon black middle-aged women. While pack racism still exists — in the news now with the white frat boys at the University of Oklahoma — putting it in the mouths of young professional in Chicago is too much of a stretch. They would have been too busy talking about work and girlfriends to notice Jaclyn.
A play about racism in 2015 would be welcome. Unfortunately, this one misses the mark.
Rasheeda Speaking is produced by The New Group as part of its 20th anniversary season. It runs through March 22.