Workplace toxicity takes both literal and figurative form in “Rasheeda Speaking,” a black comedy from the late Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson, currently playing at the Shattered Globe Theater. AmBer D. Montgomery leads a compelling cast in a revival of the 2014 play, which features witty dialogue, a suspenseful plot, and a candid discussion of race, privilege, and power in a professional setting.
For white audience members like me, “Rasheeda Speaking” encourages listening to others’ perspectives and reflecting on one’s own complicity in harmful systems. I imagine that for black Americans who have experienced workplace discrimination, this piece offers validation of their lived experiences. If this all sounds a bit heavy, rest assured that the piece gets a lot of laughs amid the serious subject matter.
“Rasheeda Speaking” centers on Jaclyn Spaulding (Deanna Reed-Foster), a middle-aged black woman who returns to her administrative job at Northwestern Memorial Hospital after taking five days off to recover from an illness her doctor attributes to harmful chemicals emitted from nearby office and laboratory equipment. In an apt metaphor, if on the nose, she finds that these fumes aren’t the only toxins surrounding her at work; the poison of racism also permeates this pristine environment.
With Jaclyn absent from the opening scene, her boss – the arrogant Dr. David Williams (Drew Schad) – confides in his favorite employee, Ileen Van Meter (Daria Harper), that he’s looking for reasons to fire Jaclyn. Or rather, reasons that will stand up to the scrutiny of the human resources department. Frankly admitting his personal motives, he complains that his only black employee is too angry, rude and resentful.
Dr. Williams pressures Ileen, whom he recently promoted to office manager, to spy on Jaclyn and provide incriminating material for her reports to HR. Although she initially defends Jaclyn, Ileen reluctantly agrees to her request out of a sense of duty to an authority figure and genuine affection for her longtime employer.
Johnson establishes an important theme of the play here: the tendency of white people who wouldn’t consider themselves racist to speak more loosely when there are no black people around, feeling free to express microaggressions or outright opinions. racists without fear that someone is “playing the race”. card.” As a white playwright, Johnson explores this dynamic of duplicity with unflinching honesty, exposing its destructive effects on blacks and whites alike.
When Jaclyn returns to the office after her sick days, she soon realizes something is wrong, as the usually friendly Ileen begins to dig herself into a deeper and deeper hole of lies to conceal her deal with Dr. Williams. Reed-Foster and Harper are well-matched in these roles. Reed-Foster’s Jaclyn is funny, confident, and charismatic, but also expresses deep vulnerability and pain at the racism she encounters both in and out of the workplace. Particularly memorable is his 11-hour monologue which reveals the significance of the play’s title.
Harper’s Ileen seems at first glance a warm and nurturing figure – exactly the type of person one would want to be greeted by in a doctor’s office. However, she descends into guilt, fear, and paranoia as the plot against Jaclyn escalates. As the two women lie and manipulate in the ensuing power struggle, Ileen is clearly on the side of the abuser – Dr. Williams – while Jaclyn acts in her own defense.
White discomfort is another recurring theme on the show. Jaclyn perceives that Dr. Williams feels “uncomfortable” socializing with black people and complains to Ileen that their employer is “looking her through”. Nor is it an empty observation; Dr. Williams implies this when he tells Ileen that Jaclyn “just doesn’t belong” in the office.
Rose Saunders (Barbara Roeder Harris), Dr. Williams’ fourth character and elderly patient, expresses such unease after having a tense encounter with Jaclyn at the reception. Repeating her son’s view that Jaclyn’s ‘culture’ can sometimes ‘go a little crazy’ as a way of ‘revenging slavery’, Rose says she doesn’t understand why such anger is justified , since ‘slavery was such a long time ago. It’s the same rhetoric heard today from those trying to curtail the discussion of slavery or race in public school classrooms: That was so long ago, why should we us making (white) students feel uncomfortable now?
Despite the protestations of the Rose Saunderses of this country, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is still with us today – an uncomfortable truth, to be sure, but one that won’t go away if we ignore it. Although theater is not a miracle cure for racism, works like “Rasheeda Speaking” play a valuable role in helping viewers put themselves in someone else’s shoes for a few hours, a powerful tool for inspire meaningful conversations after the lights go out.
Review: “Talking Rasheeda”
When: Until June 4
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Tickets: $45 at 773-975-8150 and www.sgtheatre.org