Something struck me as incredulous about Rasheeda Speaking, a ticking time bomb about racial paranoia interlaced with the destructive power of office politics. But its recently deceased playwright Joel Drake Johnson is quoted as saying, “I am interested in creating stories with characters who, despite their flaws, their bad decisions, their selfish ambitions, their awkward/comic interactions and tragic setbacks push themselves to an enlightened understanding of their place in the world.” So, it began to hang together.
Ally Theatre Company’s dark, melodramatic comedy is now onstage at Joe’s Emporium, directed by Ty Hallmark. The play checks the box for every one of Johnson’s list of requisite failings, particularly for its main character, Jaclyn Spaulding, an African American woman just out of the mailroom and moving-on-up to the swanky reception counter of Dr. David Williams, General Surgery, Chicago, Illinois. The play premiered Off Broadway in 2015, directed by Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon.
Rasheeda Speaking spews an inflammatory message spoken in the tonal imprint of an African American woman, but, surprisingly, was written by a white male playwright. Therein lies the potential for incredulity. Can a white man confidently walk through the terrain of a black woman’s inner landscape and tell a believable story from her perspective?
What rings unquestionably true in Rasheeda Speaking, however, is that Johnson captures the fallout of toxic residue as unconscious bias, racist sentiment and racial paranoia infect relationships between the races.
Taunya Ferguson delivers a strong but disturbing portrayal of Jaclyn Spaulding, a crazed passive-aggressive co-worker. Ferguson was seen recently in Theater Alliance’s Diagnosed as psychiatrist to a deeply depressed black woman. But in Rasheeda Speaking, Jaclyn switches roles and needs to get herself to a psych’s couch ASAP as she releases the built-up stress and mental toxicity of racial victimization.
Jaclyn shares a two-desk office with Ileen Van Meter, a white woman just promoted to office manager over her anxiety-prone suite-mate. And the match is lit for interpersonal combustion. Jane Petkofsky as Ileen gives a remarkable performance and is totally believable as a well-meaning yet psychologically weak character. She wants to be friends with Jaclyn, but allows the conniving Dr. Williams to use her as his “right hand girl” to help fire the unsuspecting Jaclyn and “put the office back the way it was” before he hired “Jackie.”
Racial animus runs amok as Jaclyn rudely interacts with Rose Saunders, a regular office patient. Emily Morrison does a fine turn as Rose, a poor soul filled with white guilt who bears the brunt of Jaclyn’s pent-up fury.
Nick DePinto as Dr. Williams is outstanding as the suave but arrogant surgeon who treats Jaclyn with condescension and veiled insults, all the while lighting up the office with a bright smile and welcoming manner that can’t be trusted.
The absence of trust between the races is a theme that rears its ugly head in every line of Rasheeda Speaking. Talk of “a minority uprising,” “veiled threats,” and “getting revenge for slavery” are the gist of Rose’s, Ileen’s, and Dr. Williams’ two-faced conversations behind Jaclyn’s back.
The action in Rasheeda Speaking is an excruciating slow-burn that itches as much as it inflames. You want to scratch the fear away. The movement in the play, or lack thereof, totally depends on Jaclyn’s antics, and the building racial tension is almost unbearable.
Jaclyn keeps the flame of her animus growing as you impatiently wait to see what she will do next to express her paranoia, which acts like a raging fire that consumes everything in its path. Rasheeda Speaking is a raging fire at its extreme, making it hard to believe that a black woman who wants to move up in the world would resort to such self-destructive behavior, regardless of how hard her life has been.
Kristin Hamby’s sound design and original music add a melodramatic backdrop in bursts and starts that mimic Jaclyn’s machinations. Kudos to Bridgid Burge’s scenic design and Katherine Offutt’s props design and set dressing that show meticulous attention to detail in creating an attractive Chicago doctor’s office right down to a copy of Oprah magazine on the waiting room shelf.
The playwright’s motivations come under sharp scrutiny in Rasheeda Speaking. Is the play a reverse parodied microaggression? Is it an over-cooked messianic message about racial inequality? Or is it a realistic circus of how race-tainted perceptions infect everyone when The Other is created in our minds?
Regardless of how you call it, Rasheeda Speaking is a thought-provoking but incendiary run for safety where no one really wins the game.
Running Time: Two hours, with an intermission.