Saturday, February 14, 2015

Rasheeda Speaking

I don't believe that every white person in the United States is a racist at heart , waiting only for the right provocation to reveal his or her true colors. I also do not believe that every white person will inevitably default to racist assumptions when having a disagreement with a black person. Or perhaps I believe that some white people at least struggle with their racism and have good manners.

Pinkins (standing), Wiest
Photo:Monique Carboni
Joel Drake Johnson clearly disagrees with me, and he makes his case, awkwardly, in his play Rasheeda Speaking, currently being produced by the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The play takes place in the small front office of a surgeon, where two women, Jaclyn (the always compelling Tonya Pinkins) and Ilene (the disappointing Diane Wiest) greet patients and deal with paperwork. The surgeon, Dr. Williams (the bland Darren Goldstein), feels that Jaclyn doesn't fit in. He is clearly uncomfortable with her blackness (his particular racism rings true).

Ilene feels that she and Jaclyn are friends, but Jaclyn clarifies that they're just friendly, which is quite different. At any rate, their friendliness unravels when Dr. Williams tasks Ilene with keeping a record of everything Jaclyn does wrong, so that he can fire her. There's also an elderly patient, so thinly and unconvincingly drawn that she is comes across as little more than a note in the script: "Insert racist incident here."

The potentially interesting facet of Rasheeda Speaking is that Jaclyn is no innocent. She is a master manipulator and possibly psychotic. However, this situation lacks the pay-off it could and should have. One reason is that the characters are sloppily written. Jaclyn and Ilene are bunches of traits thrown together, with little logic or coherence. Another reason is that too much time is spent establishing simple plot points. For example, the opening scene seems to last forever, and it could have done its work in half the time. Perhaps most importantly, the attempt to combine thriller-lite with racism-heavy just doesn't meld. And I completely didn't buy the racist angle in Ilene's meltdown. (Oh, and of course Jaclyn is racist too, against Mexicans.)

In an interview in New York magazine, Chris Rock said,"The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people." Are there still a lot of racists? Unfortunately, yes! But the whole "everybody is racist" trope has run its course. There are a lot of more interesting, more complicated things to say.

(press ticket; 6th row orchestra)

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