As an unabashedly liberal theatre critic—read someone else if you don’t like that: who I am is how I see things—I am always interested in plays that take on social issues, especially anything to do with racism or LGBTQ rights. As one political party continues its relentless efforts to turn the clock back on our nation’s hard-won freedoms, slowing down and examining these Big issues from a more focused perspective helps to keep everything in context. Theatre, after all, tends not to tell stories on a gigantic, universe (or even multiverse) shaking level like some books and films, but on a much tighter, more personal one. Joel Drake Johnson’s decade-old workplace drama Rasheeda Speaking, now being produced by Shattered Globe Theatre, is an example of such a show, and this funny-painful production, by shying away from obvious Voldemorts even as it shines its light on office racism, forces us to examine our own reactions to the many microaggressions we witness onstage.
Here is the play’s dirty secret: even though it fuels these microaggressions from a clearly racist perspective, Johnson creates plausible deniability: there is enough here to allow the audience to side with or to abhor pretty much any of these characters.
Jaclyn (Deanna Reed-Foster) is the show’s Black character, an office worker recently employed by a White doctor (Drew Schad) in his two-person reception area (nicely designed by Scott Penner). Ilene, played by Daria Harper, is the second woman, a White veteran of this office now in her sixth year. The fourth character in the play, Rose, an elderly patient played by Barbara Roeder Harris, is designed mostly to shine a light on the kind of almost passive racism found here (and by extension in many offices) by actually speaking out loud what no one else will: very outdated views about Black people that she believes are quite enlightened. Rose’s racism, though, turns out to be pretty much the most benign thing we encounter here.
As the play opens, we find the doctor rewarding his long-time employee Ilene with a promotion: she is now Office Manager, though both she and, later, Jaclyn wonder aloud why that job is needed in a two-person office. Jaclyn will be back today from a weeklong medical leave, backed by her doctor but seemingly based on the mounting hypochondriacal ailments she claims derive from, basically, bad air. She waves a pamphlet her doctor gave her about this to everyone, though it is not hard to see that her complaints are more mental than physical. She has even cluttered the small office with many houseplants in the hope of, well, clearing the air.
Ilene, who likes Jaclyn, is shocked to learn that the main extra duty she will have is to create a written record of her co-worker’s behavior in order to make it easier for the boss to fire her. Dr. Williams complains that Jaclyn (whom he insists on calling “Jackie” despite her repeated requests not to) is not a reliable worker and her attitude makes him uncomfortable. If you hear racist dog whistles, you’re not alone, but even Williams doesn’t feel like a total villain here. His reactions have some validity: Jaclyn is anything but a perfect employee. She is a difficult person, as she shows us from the start. She is unreliable. She does have a bad attitude and sometimes takes it out on clients, as we see when she first encounters Rose. On eggshells, dancing around any possible claims of racism, Williams finds himself wondering aloud why he is not permitted to be comfortable in his own workplace, and we can almost empathize…except that he blatantly puts negative thoughts about Jaclyn into Ilene’s head, clearly poisoning the well.
Jaclyn, of course, recognizes the inherent racism in what is happening from the moment she hears it, whereas Ilene, torn between loyalty to her employer and to her new-ish work friend, doesn’t quite know what to think or do. (Guess which side of her warring mind will ultimately win.) Director AmBer D. Montgomery clearly has worked with these actors regarding their portrayals, as they all have to make some less than comfortable choices for their characters, and Harper, riding the middle between Schad’s and Reed-Foster’s characters’ views, has the extremely difficult job of playing a fundamentally good person who finds herself succumbing to racist fears despite herself.
Reed-Foster is, of course, the one truly in focus here. What we think of Jaclyn is imperative: do we see her as a victim or as unknowingly complicit in all of this due to her difficult personality? Johnson’s script does not make this easy, as either determination just feels wrong. Reed-Foster’s performance is powerful and provocative—there are several jaw-dropping moments, such as a speech she gives about an experience on the subway that frames her racial outlook—but, like everyone else, Jaclyn feels trapped in a play that is almost too careful about handling the issue of racism…which of course just makes everything harder. White doctor wants to get rid of Black employee? Sure, but make sure the audience knows he feels backed into a wall. Black employee becomes victim of racism? Sure, but give her an abrasive and at times just plain weird demeanor, creating not-unreasonable doubt about the doctor’s motives. Both gambits work very well. But… White employee’s mind split in half as if she finds herself in the Multiverse of Madness? No problem…but Johnson actually doesn’t handle this part very well. While Jaclyn’s actions and personality might well be off-putting, nothing she does ought to be enough to transform a non-racist woman who likes her into someone who fears her Black colleague. Montgomery and Harper try, but Johnson just doesn’t make her transition ultimately believable…and an eleventh-hour alteration of Jaclyn’s character feels equally ill-conceived.
It’s not ever easy to make art about racism, especially at a time when it’s outrageously easy to turn on the TV and see real-life examples. (Director Montgomery notes that the Kentanji Brown Jackson hearings were going on as they worked on this play, and the cartoon villains/Republican senators were not very believable there either.) In an era when Saturday Night Live sketches seem ripped from reality and Fox “News” keeps saying its shows are not meant to be taken literally by the millions who take them literally, it keeps getting harder to keep commentary separate from life. With that in mind, Rasheeda Speaking is both perfect for this moment and awkward for it. It works powerfully when it works and gets abrupt when it doesn’t. It shows us clear racism while it shows us racists who honestly don’t know what they are. Basically, it feels a lot like life in the 2020s.
Rasheeda Speaking is playing through June 3 at Theatre Wit.