Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Rasheeda Speaking

The central question of Joel Drake Johnson's Rasheeda Speaking, currently in previews at the Signature Center, in a production by The New Group, can be summed up by an utterance one character makes halfway through the play: "Why can't black people and white people just get along?" The person doing the asking is Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins), an African American receptionist in the office of a white Chicago surgeon, who's figured out that her boss (played by Darren Goldstein, who's very good) has enlisted her co-worker, Ileen (Dianne Wiest), to find a reason to let Jackie go. Hiring Jackie was a mistake, he says. She doesn't fit in. She makes the patients nervous. He already has a replacement in mind, a better fit: a white woman. The dog whistle rings loud and clear.
photo: Monique Carboni
Ileen, at first, is reluctant. She considers Jaclyn a friend (a notion that, with a gimlet eye, Jaclyn rebukes), but more piquantly, she doesn't want to see herself as complicit in a racially-motivated act. Jaclyn is wise to the situation long before anyone says or does anything overt. Pinkins and Wiest play well off of each other; they imbue their benign small-talk with just the right amount of barbed double-speak. Unfortunately, the writing is not always up to the level of the fine actors tasked with performing it. The office interactions between Jaclyn and Ileen are meant to build tension in their banality, and they occasionally do, but more often than not, they just seem dull. By the time the play really starts to cook, in the final twenty minutes or so, you're left to wonder if all that exposition was necessary for such a fleeting pay-off.

The production is helmed by the actress Cynthia Nixon, in her maiden voyage as a director, and I'm afraid that her relative inexperience does no favors to the deficits in the writing. There is nothing visually or stylistically interesting about the staging; Wiest and Pinkins spend most of the ninety minutes seated at their tall desks, which eclipse much of their body language. It's hard to give a complete performance with such an impediment. It's a testament to the talents of the cast--which also includes Patricia Conolly as an elderly patient who, in her brief scenes with Pinkins, does more to answer the play's central question than anyone else--that they are able to bring the nuance to their performances that's largely missing from the writing and the direction.

[Rear orchestra, TDF]

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