Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins) is kind of a pill. An assistant in a surgeon’s office, she is condescending to patients, cruel to the mild-mannered office manager, Ileen (Dianne Wiest), insensitive to her Mexican neighbors (who she thinks should be deported), and constantly making suspicious claims about “toxins” in the air.
But she is also a Black woman working for a white man, Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein), and happens to be absolutely right about the racism in her office. Her “yammering,” in fact, frequently hits the mark. Dr. Williams, when changing the coffee, jokes that there “ain’t no mo’ of that hazelnut stuff” (Jaclyn’s preferred flavor), and confides to Ileen that he thinks Black people act aggressively as a defense mechanism. Ileen herself is not immune to prejudice, and when pushed she gradually reveals a whole smorgasbord of repressed, insane beliefs, chief among them that “these people” are plotting race wars in the basements of their homes, “talking in chants and sign language.”
Joel Drake Johnson’s darkly comedic Rasheeda Speaking, then, raises an important question about narratives of victimhood: why do we require that a victim be entirely innocent for us to take his or her suffering seriously? Why do we dismiss a Michael Brown when we find out he is a criminal, even if his crimes are irrelevant to his murder? And speaking of irrelevant distractions, why does nobody seem to realize that Jaclyn, who touch types like a wizard, is much better at her job than Ileen?
Mr. Johnson knows his rhetoric is much more powerful when it is couched in humor and he accordingly packs his play with hilarity. There is, for example, the elderly patient (Patricia Connolly) who tells Jaclyn with the kind of sincerity we only find in the truly ignorant, “I know you can go a little crazy sometimes. My son thinks it’s in your culture to act the way you did. Something about your way to get revenge for slavery. I didn’t exactly know what he meant—slavery was such a long time ago.” Or there is Dr. Williams’ microaggressive insistence on calling his assistant “Jackie,” apparently oblivious to the implications of ownership when he says to her with bemused curiosity, “Guess I want your name to be Jackie.” And in the middle of it all, there is the dopey but dangerous Ileen, with her pitiful refrain, “I think we should get along.”
Ms. Pinkins expertly handles Jaclyn, balancing her penchant for bullying with an increasingly rightful claim of being harassed, even when the script dips into a regrettable tendency for grandstanding monologues. The casting here is key, because Ms. Pinkins’ unattractive rendering of Jaclyn is doubly effective when paired with Ms. Wiest, who has an uncanny likability: we are thus forced to make a decision between the obnoxious (but correct) yammerer and the sweet (but racist) grandmotherly figure.
Admittedly, towards the end, Mr. Johnson loses a bit of his edge—as when the toxins in the air become explicitly metaphorical, or when the title is spoken aloud as a punchline to the play’s climax. Still, for the most part Rasheeda Speaking is a sharp and challenging work, one that rarely sacrifices its honesty to the demands of drama or the demands of drama to its honesty.
Rasheeda Speaking runs through March 22nd at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre. 480 W. 42nd Street New York, NY. 1 hour 45 minutes. No intermission.