Can incremental racism make you sick and even a little crazy? Rasheeda Speaking is a fascinating exploration into the premise that no matter how well-intentioned we try to be, the toxic elements of racism are deep seeded and seep through the culture with infectious impact.
The affable Doctor Williams (Nick DePinto,) hired Jaclyn with good intentions, and trusted office assistant Ileen, nicely played by Jane Petkofsky, helps to welcome her into the small office. But Jaclyn, (not “Jackie” as she makes clear to the doctor) is not the smiling, amiable type and instead comes across as abrupt and curt to patients on the phone and in the office. She’s been away for a week on sick leave, caused by the toxic air in the office, she says, and although both Doctor Williams and Ileen genuinely try to welcome her back and attempt to engage her in small talk and office chatter, her gruff manner shuts them down. When she’s unnecessarily abrupt with one of the patients, Doctor Williams puts Ileen in charge of documenting Jaclyn’s performance and behavior, setting the two in an office struggle that ends in a nosedive of ill will.
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As Jaclyn, Taunya Ferguson must convince us that she’s dealing with emotional and physical scars of constant racial micro abrasions, not a small feat. Her ticks and furtive glances make you wonder what’s really on her mind, what’s behind the eyes of one who “wears the mask” per the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Jaclyn recounts being dismissed as “Rasheeda” and retaliates with all the trappings of the “angry black woman” with a chip on her shoulder. When a hapless elderly patent quips that the new lady seems angry, maybe she’s carrying grudges from slavery, oh, that adds yet more spin to the turbulent office scene. Attempts at political politeness go out the window when your life feels threatened. Let’s just say, things do not end as expected.
Office politics are played out in quotidian moments that feel long in this snap-chat age but director Ty Hallmark knows what she’s doing and for the most part keeps an assured pace. The office workers take the time they need to type and consult their files and papers all while seething or plotting or recuperating from an office mishap.
Micro abrasions take their toll. Jaclyn shares snippets of her neighbors’ latest crisis, relating with calm and ease like she’s commenting on the weather. She’s become desensitized to harrowing events in her community to survive. Again, with Ferguson at the helm, we’re able to sympathize with Jaclyn until her tirades become overbearing and her treachery goes too far.
Rasheeda Speaking closes March 22, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
The set by Bridgid Burge has adjacent desks and chairs angled perfectly to view the characters and their dismal reactions. Katherine Offutt’s props and set dressing are noteworthy with well-placed plants and realistic outfitted desks that seem functional and not cluttered. Lighting by Jennifer A. Leon keeps the focus steady as Jaclyn shares the latest affront. Kristin Hamby’s sound design is ominous in just the right spots although the volume could be pulled back a decibel and let the dramatic tension speak for itself.
Interestingly, today it’s not that far a stretch to consider that the toxic fumes that Jaclyn chokes on, that she attributes to particles emanating from the copy machine, could actually come from any number of sources. With military gas masks returning in the news and shelves running low on mesh face masks, playwright Joel Drake Johnson couldn’t have guessed how real life would catch up to his premise. Whether the toxins are bonafide physical particles or deeply ingrained racial and cultural misperceptions, Johnson’s tale will make you ponder how to stay physically and emotionally sane and healthy considering what’s out there and close by.
Rasheeda Speaking by Joel Drake Johnson . Director— Ty Hallmark . Cast: Jane Petkofsky, Taunya Ferguson, Nick Depinto, Emily Morrison . Set – Bridgid Burge . Lighting—Jennifer A. Leon . Costumes— Jennifer Utz . Sound Design and Original Music— Kristin Hamby . Props Design and Set Dressing— Katherine Offutt . Stage Manager— Steph Connor . Produced by Ally Theatre Company . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.