Thursday, February 12, 2015

Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest open in "Rasheeda Speaking"

Tonya Pinkins (Jaclyn) and Dianne Wiest (Ileen) in Rasheeda Speaking
(photo: Monique Carboni)

Yeah, friendship and all that but, as Nina Simone taught us, "You've got to learn to leave the table when love's no longer being served."

In Rasheeda Speaking, Jaclyn Spaulding (Tonya Pinkins) has taken several sick days and returns to her administrative job in a Chicago surgeon's front office to discover that her buddy Ileen (Dianne Wiest) has been promoted to Office Manager. Well, hooray for Ileen. Except, what is she managing, really? It's a cramped, two-person reception area and, from the look of things, Ileen can barely manage her half of it. Neat-freak, plant-loving, toxin-phobic Jaclyn quickly figures it out: Ileen will be managing her.

And why is that? Well, it turns out that their boss, smooth operator Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein) is more than a little put off by Jaclyn's supposed attitude and rudeness. Let me point out, now, that Jaclyn is Black. Everyone else in Joel Drake Johnson's four-person play is white. You see where we're headed?

Darren Goldstein (Dr. Williams) with Wiest
(photo: Monique Carboni)

And we're headed there rapidly. Johnson wastes no time. The surgeon's opening gambit with sensitive, clearly fragile Ileen goes by in a flash. He leans in, verbally, and works her. Yes, she agrees to monitor and secretly document Jaclyn's behavior for irrefutable evidence. Because, you know, it's so hard to get people fired these days. Despite Ileen's initial reluctance to betray Jaclyn, she knows how to take orders, especially from a boss she reveres and who constantly reminds her how essential she is to him.

Presented by The New Group, with multiple award-winning actress Cynthia Nixon in her debut as a director, Rasheeda Speaking is a humorous and lacerating slice of reality in "post-racial" urban America. Tony-winner Pinkins calibrates and channels numerous expressions of insight, cunning and everyday fury as a mature Black woman who understands all too well what's going on with both clueless white people and white people who know exactly what they're doing. Her rich, indelible performance is this play's through-line.

Johnson and Nixon are also blessed to have Wiest, Oscar- and Emmy-winner, at her best when breaking her distress into vivid fractions and seconds. In the small, if pivotal, role of an elderly patient, Patricia Conolly is both irritating and hilarious with perfect timing and inflection. Goldstein embodies the arrogant Williams with such ease, you have to restrain yourself from storming the stage.

Or, at least, I did. But I saw it with a largely white, largely female audience drawn, undoubtedly, by the starry trio of Pinkins, Wiest and Nixon. Rasheeda Speaking, though often devilishly funny, provokes a necessary discomfort, and perhaps white viewers will absorb some useful things.

Johnson--a white playwright, and one who did well to heed recommendations from Pinkins--knows how the divide-and-conquer game is played and how that game usually ends for the played. He's also onto racial aggression of both the macro and micro kind. One of my favorite examples has to do with Jaclyn's name and the good doctor's claiming of entitlement to reduce it to "Jackie." The back-and-forth around Jaclyn's name is priceless. Also priceless and sly if deliberate, which it must be, is the fact that "Ileen" is also an unusual spelling of a common name yet never draws ridicule and manhandling.

Well, of course, it doesn't. Of course.

Rasheeda Speaking runs through March 22. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission. For schedule and ticket information, click here.

The New Group at
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues), Manhattan

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