Theater Review: Power and Punch in Rasheeda Speaking

Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest in Joel Drake Johnson's Rasheeda Speaking. Photo: Monique Carboni

When a play is about race, should the playwright’s matter? I found myself asking this question after seeing Rasheeda Speaking, a wild ride and a welcome surprise from the severely hit-or-miss New Group, now enjoying its first season at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The author, Joel Drake Johnson, is a fixture of Chicago’s theater scene, with five “Jeff” nominations for playwriting. (The Joseph Jefferson Awards are Chicago’s Tony equivalent.) But he’s little-known here, and perhaps that’s just as well. It was often too easy to approach Bruce Norris’s race-baiting Clybourne Park through the knowledge that he is white. If you’re like me, though, you will have to struggle to sort out your feelings about Rasheeda Speaking without being able to take offense at Johnson’s whiteness or cover from his blackness or context from anything else that may be true about him. In any case, it’s a wallop of a play, brilliantly acted by Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest, that leaves you scrambling to puzzle out its implications on your own.

Or it does once it’s over. While it’s happening — it’s just 100 intermissionless minutes long — there’s no time to do anything but hold onto the handrails. Johnson wastes not even a line establishing the uh-oh situation: Two women work in the office of a successful, self-satisfied Chicago surgeon named David Williams. Ileen, who is white, has been there for eight years; she’s a bit timid and sloppy but lovable and loyal. Jaclyn is black, and though very efficient, has in just six months managed to alienate the doctor, who is white, to the point that he wants her fired. In a secret conference as the play begins, he tells Ilene that Jaclyn (whom he keeps calling Jackie) is rude and abrupt with patients, standoffish with him. “She hates me,” he says, “She never looks me in the eye.” Fair enough, but his language quickly devolves into a series of dog-whistles: She’s “too angry.” She’s “condescending” — which, he says, is “their” way “of protecting themselves from their own lack of self-esteem and power, a power they will probably never, never have.”

So we are primed for a drama about racism as the doctor tells Ileen to collect the evidence that Human Resources will need to justify getting rid of Jaclyn. The plot’s gears do not move as you expect them to, though: When Jaclyn shows up, complaining of mysterious toxins and generally acting sour, the doctor’s dislike of her, if not his reasoning, starts to seem reasonable. Jaclyn is rude and abrupt. She treats a patient, old Mrs. Saunders, with hauteur bordering on sadism. And when Ilene, the “nice” one, tries to steer her toward behavior that might save her job, she reflexively steers the other way. She is, plainly, angry, a feeling she indirectly acknowledges in the form of a parable about the young white professional men on her bus each morning. These men call “stern, frozen-face” middle-aged black women like her “Rasheedas” — and if that’s what they want, that’s what she’s going to be.

As the play proceeds, tightening the noose, it swings between these poles: Jaclyn as a victim of white people’s racism,and Jaclyn as a sociopath who prompts and perhaps even justifies it. The fight between social construction and essentialism is joined, twisted, squeezed — and heavily massaged. For each time Jaclyn nearly pitches the story off one side with outrageous behavior (she gaslights Ilene by rearranging the contents of her desk), the playwright has her overcorrect with apologies, flashes of kindness, profound insight, and even a “reconciliation card.” But just as you take that in, she’s off again, talking trash about her Mexican neighbors. It’s all too much for Ilene, who sees herself as fair-minded and open but whose latent prejudices are gradually unwrapped. For all the comedy involved, most of it anxious but nevertheless hilarious, the play is at bottom a sociological thriller: Whose idea will kill whose? At one point, perhaps going too far, that question even threatens to become literal.

This whiplash method of keeping up the tension comes at a cost, though you may not realize it until later. Ilene, manipulated by both the doctor and by Jaclyn, decompensates so severely that were she not played by Wiest, you would not think it possible for such a character to exist. Wiest is perhaps the least armored of actors: Her entire defensive carapace amounts to little more than a one-ply knit sweater. It’s only the extremity of her delicacy that lets Ilene make sense, though she too thus becomes an exemplar of individual psychopathology rather than larger social ills. It’s a devastating performance, as, in a different sense of the word, is Pinkins’s. Pinkins, whose career ought to be even bigger than it is, does not so much trouble herself with Jaclyn’s consistency as her solidity: Each contradictory element — the prickliness, the kindness, the whackjobiness, the girlishness — is monumentally inhabited.

Paced at a fast clip by Cynthia Nixon in her directorial debut, Pinkins’s and Wiest’s series of brilliant character vignettes just about hold together. (Darren Goldstein as Dr. Williams, and Patricia Conolly as Mrs. Saunders are also spot on.) But without Pinkins especially, I’m afraid Rasheeda Speaking would not be nearly as convincing. Johnson’s script wants to have it both ways. We laugh and cringe when Mrs. Saunders says to Jaclyn, who has tried to apologize for her previous behavior, “My son thinks it’s in your culture to act the way you did … Something about your way to get revenge for slavery.” The audience gasped at that line the night I saw it, but Jaclyn ends up endorsing if not embodying the same argument. If this makes for a chilling kicker, it adds to our perplexity. Is the same statement different when it comes from an old white lady than when it comes from a middle-aged black one? Or, for that matter, when it comes from a white playwright as opposed to a black one?

But perhaps that’s what Johnson, who I’ve just been told is white, is demonstrating. As much for Ilene as for Jaclyn, craziness has shaped their attitudes about race, and race has driven them crazy. It’s a Möbius strip of a paradox, easier to feel than to grasp. Luckily Rasheeda Speaking is not a dissertation but a play, and a thrillingly must-see one at that.

Rasheeda Speaking is at the Pershing Square Signature Center through March 22.