Fort Worth — Some of the roughest battles are those fought at close quarters—the distance, let’s say, between one woman’s desk and another’s. If you come out of Circle Theatre’s nerve-jangling production of Joel Drake Johnson’s Rasheeda Speaking with a strong sense you’ve been sitting too close to a knife fight…you’re reading the room pretty accurately.
Why the uneasy reaction? We’re in a doctor’s office like a hundred we’ve seen, with ailing plants, computer monitors, and paperwork spilled over too-busy desks. (Clare Floyd DeVries’ uncannily accurate set design—down to the cheerfully icky wall colors—feels plucked from a nearby hospital or clinic, as does Megan Beddingfield’s copious collection of props.)
But we hear trouble coming right off, as surgeon Dr. David Williams (Ken Orman makes a smooth, smiling villain) passes through one morning to chat with longtime “right-hand girl” Ileen (Lisa Fairchild). He’s made a mistake, he says, in hiring her new co-worker Jaclyn (M. Denise Lee). Her “atti-tood” is terrible, her social skills lacking. She doesn’t fit in. He’d like to replace her—and asks Ileen to keep notes he can use to convince HR he’s right. “It’s hard to get rid of people today,” he says.
Jaclyn is black.
And with this first scene—even before Jaclyn comes onstage—we sense that the play’s engagingly edgy humor can’t last forever. And how could it? The American conversation about race is always hard, and seldom pretty. Rasheeda Speaking is at its core a walking, talking version of encounters most of us have had—where words and actions never land right, where we both (or all) emerge feeling off-kilter, confused and misunderstood, or just plain angry that someone can’t be argued out of seeing you as a person (you think) you’re not.
Ileen doesn’t seem comfortable with gathering the “stats” on Jaclyn her boss wants, but takes the notebook he holds out to her. Girlishly twitter-voiced for a mature woman, Fairchild’s Ileen is reflexively friendly and sweet, a people pleaser. She brings the treats each day and chirps “You look great, doctor!” when he hesitates over a second sweet roll.
Jaclyn’s been out for a week—“anxiety attacks,” says the doctor—and considering the office plot we just overheard, we’re inclined to be sympathetic. But this prickly woman doesn’t make herself easy to like. In her first few minutes onstage, Lee skillfully lays out the basics of the character: forceful but tightly wound, as though on constant watch for danger. Jackie complains that her plants are dying, that Ileen’s loaded her desk with new work, that the “toxins” in the office air are making her feel sick.
And she isn’t happy to hear that while she was gone, Dr. Williams promoted Ileen to office manager. There are “just two of us,” Jaclyn points out. “He picked me,” says Ileen in a flat, cool voice.
And with that, we’re sure about one thing—we aren’t going to find any heroes in this play, directed by Krista Scott with scrupulous attention to the rough edges of each character, and how hard it is (as in real life) to make final judgments about anyone. (Rasheeda had its New York premiere in a 2015 production starring Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest.)
Jaclyn, true to Ileen’s description, is wincingly bullying and abrasive to elderly cancer patient Rose (Barrie Alguire). Ileen tries to take over, but Jaclyn won’t have it. “You need to be careful,” warns Ileen, notebook at the ready. “Are you…overseeing me?” asks Jaclyn, clearly furious and grabbing (possibly unconsciously) for a very loaded, slave days term.
Patient Rose (Alguire nails the too-bright manner of the slightly befuddled) is back the next day and Jaclyn apologizes. “My son thinks it’s in your culture,” says Rose. It’s something about “revenge for slavery.” How many of these casual comments has Jaclyn heard in her life?
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Johnson’s script is that it never gives us an emotional landing strip—we’re continually up in the air about who these people really are and how we feel about them. The second we settle in, something happens to shift our sympathies and opinions.
Clearly aware of a threat to her job, Jaclyn lets us know how badly she wants it. The work she did for years in the hospital’s copy room—working alone, lost in a miasma of toner “fog”—was “slave work,” she says. This is a step up, and she isn’t going back. Here’s where the name “Rasheeda” enters the story: Jaclyn tells Ileen how she discovered that the bright young professionals (white) she commutes with had one nickname for every middle-aged, working class black woman they saw. “There goes Rasheeda!” they joked one morning, and Jaclyn froze, knowing that’s what they must say every day when she exits the bus.
It’s a transcendently true moment, portrayed by Lee with quiet, pained precision. But Jaclyn keeps us guessing about her intentions as she reacts to the threat of losing her job. She plays silly tricks on Ileen, confronts her directly about work (“Did I pass?”), listens at doors, makes nice with presents and pastries, and talks incessantly at a pace that reveals her turmoil.
As Jaclyn fills the stage with sound and action, Fairchild’s Ileen becomes ever more silent and still. She comes to work agitated, angry, worried that Jaclyn is dangerous—even as we begin to doubt Ileen’s own stability and how she may react to the perceived “threat” of Jaclyn’s presence. Fairchild ratchets up tone and intensity at startling moments, seeming to match the sudden leaps of Ileen’s fear and anger.
Who wins this inter-office war? There’s a fleeting aura of triumphalism at the end—but a sense that nothing much has been learned or settled. Rasheeda Speaking is not a hopeful play. But playwright Johnson (a white Chicago-based writer) has given us characters who defy easy assumptions, and the freedom to explore our own feelings about a storyline that is anything but black and white.
And it’s a mark of Rasheeda Speaking’s impact that as the play goes on we look harder at the young, uncredited African-American actress who comes in silently each “night” to clean the doctor’s office—and begin to wonder about her character’s life and story.
Note: On May 17, Rasheeda Speaking’s M. Denise Lee will lead a “Community Conversation” from 7:00 to 9:30 p.m. at Circle Theatre, 230 W. Fourth Street in Fort Worth. The event is meant “to bridge the divide between communities and devise steps to bring about real change. Join in…and and be the change you want to see in the world!” For more information visit www.circletheatre.com or call 817-877-3040.