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Themes of office politics and underlying racism are provocatively if awkwardly handled in Joel Drake Johnson‘s comedy/drama now being given its New York premiere by Off-Broadway’s The New Group after an acclaimed run in Chicago. Starring Dianne Wiest and Tonya Pickens and marking the directorial debut of actress Cynthia Nixon, Rasheeda Speaking never quite manages to put its ideas across in sufficiently coherent fashion, but it offers many arresting moments along the way.
Set in the reception area of a medical clinic, it involves the two office employees of a surgeon, Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein). Ileen (Wiest) has been in his employ for eight years, and has just been promoted to the title of “office manager.” Her co-worker is the African-American Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins), who at the play’s beginning is returning to work after five sick days which she explains were caused by all the “toxins” in the air.
Those toxins, which periodically cause Jaclyn to suffer from violent sneezing fits, are as symbolic as they are literal. The doctor, upset at the Jaclyn’s poor attitude, wants to get rid of her, and enlists the loyal Ileen to drum up sufficient damaging information on her co-worker to satisfy Human Resources.
When Jaclyn does return, she seems to live up to her introduction. Chagrined to discover Ileen’s new title—”But there’s only two of us,” she points out—she’s officiously rude to an elderly female patient, Rose (Patricia Conolly), who has committed the sin of showing up at the office without checking in downstairs first. Although Ilene quickly intervenes, the damage has been done, with Rose later commenting about Jaclyn’s behavior, “It’s in your culture…your way to get revenge for slavery.”
The characters’ interpersonal dynamic are endlessly intriguing. Ileen, who endlessly toadies to her employer, tells him that she thinks Jaclyn has a secret crush on him. Jaclyn at first attempts to modify her behavior by offering an apology to Rose, but then seems to be playing with Ileen’s mind by switching the contents of her desk drawers. She also frequently injects racial elements to the proceedings, claiming among things that the doctor “doesn’t like to socialize with black people.”
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But even with its relatively brief 90-minute running time, the work proves repetitive in its depiction of the psychological mind games of its characters whose motivations prove frustratingly elusive. The playwright seems to be raising more questions than he can answer, seemingly more interested in stirring the plot than making the situations particularly credible.
That it works to the extent that it does is a testament to the two lead performers who handle their roles with impressive technical and emotional finesse. Wiest, playing a seeming milquetoast, carefully lets us see Ilene’s passive-aggressive tendencies, while Pinkins leavens Jaclyn’s more overt hostility with frequent doses of tart humor. Goldstein and Conolly offer solid support, vividly illustrating director Nixon’s skill at handling actors.
There are missteps along the way, such as the penultimate scene whose conclusion would have made for a far more effective ending to the play (the vigorously clasping audience was clearly under the impression that it was over). But ultimately Rasheeda Speaking more closely resembles an actors’ exercise than a fully fleshed-out work.
Cast: Dianne Wiest, Tonya Pinkens, Darren Goldstein, Patricia Conolly
Director: Cynthia Nixon
Playwright: Joel Drake Johnson
Set designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting designer: Jennifer Tipton
Sound designer and original music: David Van Tieghem
Presented by The New Group
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