Right off the bat, there’s a lot to like about any play set in a workplace. These are environments all of us are familiar with, and we know how some of the power games are played. So in Rasheeda Speaking, when a doctor asks his loyal secretary to help him find evidence so he can fire another secretary he doesn’t like, we all nod our heads knowingly. Yes, we are familiar with dick-heads like that.
But when the doctor and the favored secretary are white and the targeted secretary is black, the stakes suddenly become more significant. In this play, the author Joel Drake Johnson attempts to bring up a raft of touchy racial subjects as they apply to employment, and many of them resonate quite well. But he loads so much on this almost-two hour one act that it eventually loses its momentum and crawls to a conclusion.
The white employee, Ileen, has been working for the doc (an effectively passive-aggressive John Busser) for eight years, and she’s just been promoted to office manager. But the boss in the white coat doesn’t care for Jaclyn, an African-American woman who had recently been promoted from elsewhere in the medical facility to this position. As if to prove her unfitness for the job, the doctor has his stethoscope in a twist because Jaclyn took off five days because of “toxins in the air” that she and her private doctor claim are damaging her health.
From that premise, we watch as Jaclyn and Ileen dance around each other like scorpions packing file folders, trying to one-up each other. Mary Alice Beck as Ileen nicely balances her characters sweetness with a definite focus on doing her boss’s bidding. Meanwhile, Treva Offutt as Jaclyn shows both sides of this black woman, making it difficult to fully root for anyone in this office standoff.
Many issues are brought up, including the difficult home lives of some black families and the offensive things white people say to each other about blacks when they think no one is listening. But every time the play tries to open itself up and depart from the office tug-of-war, it loses energy and starts to sabotage its own compelling premise.
Indeed, the playwright trods the same ground one (or two or three) too many times, with a variety of cutbacks and mind games, some of which are baffling. And then, unaccountably, he lurches past the perfect ending, when Jaclyn delivers a drop-the-mic moment referencing the name in the title.
But director Sarah May coaxes interesting performances out of her cast, which includes an adorable Rhoda Rosen as an elderly patient who is fought over by Ileen and Jaclyn like a chew toy. And Ben Needham’s carefully detailed set lends an air of authenticity to the proceedings.
There’s a sharp, funny and often startling script laying inside Rasheeda Speaking, but its voice is dimmed by the playwright’s tendency to overstate things that have already been said.
Through November 20 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7070.