Theater

Set in a Surgeon’s Office, the Racially Charged Rasheeda Speaking is Strong Medicine

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In Joel Drake Johnson’s trenchant Rasheeda Speaking — a New Group production crisply directed by Cynthia Nixon — workplace racism, unacknowledged but ubiquitous, is like a particularly noxious pollutant. Call it social DDT: Odorless and traceless, it gets everywhere and taints everything, its existence denied until the corrosive effects erupt.

As the action begins, the fix is in at a Chicago surgeon’s office: The Doc (Darren Goldstein), a swaggering, patronizing avatar of white male privilege, wants to fire Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins), one of his two employees, who is African American, to replace her with a transfer from elsewhere in the building — one you can’t help suspecting he has lascivious designs on.

Because he’s a low-key racist, the sort who cloaks his bigotry in corporate euphemisms, he cites the usual reasons people cite to explain baseless biases: Jaclyn’s abrasive, she’s not dedicated to the job. To do his dirty work, the Doc promotes Ilene (Dianne Wiest), his other assistant, to “office manager” (supervising a staff of two, including herself) and assigns her to build the case for firing Jaclyn. Suddenly the two colleagues aren’t colleagues anymore: Ilene, scribbling damning notes and conferring with the Doc in early-morning meetings, discovers that a little misplaced power corrupts a lot. And Jaclyn, horrified, learns that what she thought was unpleasant but manageable prejudice is something far worse. (Early on we hear that Jaclyn has been suffering allergic reactions to some unknown airborne toxin — we quickly realize the contaminant is social in nature and far more pervasive than suspected.)

But as the conspiracy gathers force, Jaclyn begins to fight back, returning the same kind of psychological torment she has been subjected to: constant surveillance, subtle humiliations, infantilizing
assumptions. And as micro-aggression
aggregates into macro-aggression, the
office becomes a war zone, and the conflict careens to an unexpected conclusion.

Occasional allusions to international terrorism drive home the point that America’s racism has been, and remains, a homegrown version. (The “Rasheeda” of the play’s title is a dismissive nickname to describe middle-aged black women, devised by a group of bumptious white yuppies Jaclyn overhears during her commute.)

Allen Moyer’s set — the battlefield — is so precisely observed it could be a section of an actual doctor’s office. It’s both upscale and drab: off-purple carpets, finer-grade (but still corporate-bland) furniture, rows of binders, a photocopier, everything blending into the same hue of gray.

To Johnson’s credit, he resists the urge to make Jaclyn into any kind of saint. She’s a competent employee who (quite sensibly) doesn’t profess to love an unlovable job — the way Ilene, who’s a bit of a pleaser, does. Pinkins’s brassy brusqueness and Wiest’s servile simpering perfectly capture two of the dominant moods of bureaucratic encounter. And when things go wrong, the
actors expertly chart the descent from
superficial camaraderie to mutually assured paranoia to knives-out edginess. (Playing the Doc, wandering in and out, preening for his captive audience, Goldstein ably delineates the petty vanity engendered by unchecked power over a small domain.)
We’re reminded that the workplace, arbitrarily crowding people in hierarchical communities, remains one of the most volatile flashpoints for American racial politics.

As the tension and misery in the office mounts, Rasheeda Speaking becomes
profoundly uncomfortable to watch — it might make you feel as gnawingly anxious as its characters. That just means the play is working.

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