Rasheeda Speaking

Treva Offutt as Jaclyn (left) and Mary Alice Beck as Ileen

There are no heroes in Joel Drake Johnson’s divisive water cooler dramedy “Rasheeda Speaking,” which was first seen in Chicago in 2013 and first performed at Karamu in 2016. Here, office politics turn toxic and everyone is a slow-leak source.

Front office receptionist Jaclyn (Treva Offutt) has been out sick for five days when the play begins. Her employer, Dr. Williams (John Busser), reveals in an early morning meeting with long-time employee and newly promoted office manager Ileen (Mary Alice Beck) that he was never happy with the decision to hire Jaclyn because she “doesn’t fit in,” “seems angry at the world” and is “stuck in her ways.” And so Ileen has been asked to monitor and start a file on Jaclyn’s work habits to build a case for Human Resources so that she can be fired or transferred.

Our playwright knows full well that it is our nature as a storytelling species to find the hero in a story and gravitate toward that individual for the duration of the telling. He serves up a benevolent male surgeon, an acquiescent and deeply loyal middle-aged female, and Jaclyn, who we are told suffers from anxiety attacks, is a condescending prima donna, and is trouble.

And so, from the get-go, we choose our hero as if there’s a ballot in our playbill and we’ve been asked to check one of the small boxes by each character’s name. And it isn’t Jaclyn’s.

But when the African-American Jaclyn walks into a room of uncomfortable white colleagues, race is quickly on the table along with gender, age and social status in our selection of a preferred protagonist.

When a lovely, elderly patient named Rose (Mary Jane Nottage) enters the office (realistically rendered and lit by Aaron Benson and Marcus Dana, respectively) for an appointment, Jaclyn’s rude and abusive treatment of her strengthens Dr. Williams’ case. That is until Rose, who is frail, unfiltered and white, gives voice to the undercurrent of ingrained racism that Jaclyn has encountered every day of her life and which is beautifully recounted in a powerful monologue later in the play. And so our sympathies shift.

Soon we learn whether characters are married or divorced and their religiosity is revealed, which either reinforce or reverse our allegiance. And then everyone’s personality quirks, personal prejudices and psychological shortcomings are unceremoniously exposed through Johnson’s clever and remarkably conversational dialogue.

Toward the end of this 90-minute one-act play, our imaginary ballots are blurred from all the internal crossing out and erasing.

Clearly, the playwright wants us to see each character with ambiguity, so as to bring to the surface and force us to project our own predispositions and unintended biases. He is successful thanks to Sarah May’s astute direction which, along with some truly fine acting, also manages to tone down the occasions when Johnson gets a bit heavy-handed in his writing and attempts to alter a character’s trajectory and our feelings toward it with a seismic shift.

Offutt, Beck and Busser are masterful at subtly morphing their character’s nature with each new layer of revelation while still maintaining Jaclyn’s core intelligence, Ileen’s insecurity and Dr. Williams’ good intentions, and never losing sight of the play’s humor. Still, by the play’s end, the stage is filled with genuinely unlikable but extremely intriguing characters.

“Rasheeda Speaking” takes us on an always engaging, often provocative and sometimes infuriating journey. Which is why artistic director Tony Sias brought it back for another go.

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2019 Ohio SPJ best critic.

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