February 18, 2015

Rasheeda Speaking: A Review + a Giveaway

Talking about race is hard. So instead, most of us talk about talking about race. But playwright Joel Drake Johnson goes full tilt at the main subject in Rasheeda Speaking, now playing in a fine New Group production at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Inspired by an incident that Johnson (who’s white) had with a receptionist (who was black) the play follows the chain of events that unfolds when a doctor who has hired an African-American receptionist to appease the human resources department in his medical group enlists his longtime white employee to help him get rid of the unwanted black one.

Over the six months they’d worked together, the two women had become friendly but as the white Ileen reluctantly follows the doctor’s orders to monitor her black co-worker Jaclyn, tics previously accepted become major annoyances, both their affection for and tolerance of one another frays, replaced by insecurities, resentments and bigotry on both sides. 

The production could hardly be more timely or better realized. Dianne Wiest knows just how to use her trademark whispery voice and fidgety mannerisms to underscore Ileen’s initial discomfort with the doctor’s request and growing uneasiness as Jaclyn figures out what’s going on and begins to undermine Ilene.

Meanwhile Tonya Pinkins, who gets most of the play’s humorous lines (and despite the serious subject matter there are plenty of them) is just as good at conveying Jaclyn's complex mix of brusque and bruised, both peeking out from behind a mask of folksy affability. (Click here to read an interview with both actresses).

In her debut as a director, the talented actress Cynthia Nixon keeps the tension high throughout the play’s 95-minute running time and she refuses to make it easy for the audience to choose sides (click here for an interview wit her). 

Some critics have accused Rasheeda Speaking of race-baiting and complained that it’s unrealistic, or at the very least unfair, for it to portray racism as something lurking inside all of us. But the show rang true to me. 

I mean who amongst us hasn’t made a racist comment or joke, as the producer Scott Rudin and the Sony movie chief Amy Pascal, both liberals, did in their hacked emails about President Obama? Or is there anyone who, at some time, hasn’t quietly rolled their eyes when someone else resorted to playing the race card? 

And you can find lots of other examples on that kind of thing in Claudia Rankine's "Citizen: An American Lyric," the poetry collection about race relations in the 21st century that's currently up for two National Book Critics Circle awards.

The problem isn’t so much doing and saying inappropriate things as it is not being able to talk, without fear of opprobrium, about what’s motivated that behavior. So this play deserves credit for doing that.

And you may be able to see for yourself how good a job it does because I've got a pair of tickets to giveaway for a performance of your choice before the show closes on March 22. 

You can win them by naming the movie for which Wiest won her Oscar or the show for which Pinkins won her Tony and sending the answers to me at  jan@broadwayandme.com by midnight on Monday, Feb. 23. 

You know the drill: I’ll put all the right answers in a hat and my husband K will pluck one out. Then I’ll announce the lucky winner next Wednesday.

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