Rasheeda Speaking

There’s something toxic in the air in Dr. Williams’s office.  Whether it is emanating from the copier or one of the occupants isn’t easy to determine.  Williams is desperate to fire his latest hire, Jaclyn, a middle-age African American woman whom he feels is brusk with his patients and disrespectful of him.  But is he just being racially insensitive?  Is she really a dedicated employee with a rightfully-earned chip on her shoulder, who would thrive were she given just a little more support?

As portrayed by the charismatic and clever Tonya Pinkins, Jaclyn is a fascinating cypher.  She’s clearly an unreliable narrator of events, but the genuine nuggets of hard truth that lie beneath her stories poke through with alarming sharpness.  We may not want to have her over for dinner, but we certainly feel for her – at least some of the time.  I suspect Pinkins fleshed out Jaclyn’s backstory by thoroughly digesting the rich dialogue provided by Joel Drake Johnson (whose “The First Grade” is still fresh in my mind after four years).  Even her little “throw away” lines have weight.

If only Pinkins had a better opponent to play against.  Dianne Wiest’s performance seems to have been inspired by a newborn goat.  She trots unsteadily around the stage, bleating her lines in an irritating high-pitched tone.  By the time her character Ileen is in genuine distress, only dogs can hear her.  It’s a hugely disappointing turn from this Oscar winner and theater regular.

Happily, first-time director, Cynthia Nixon,  seems to have attracted a younger than usual audience to the theater.  I’m a bit puzzled, however, as to why the Sex and the City star chose this play as her directorial debut.  Unfolding in a static office setting, the action is limited to occasionally watering the plants and making coffee.  Perhaps, like me, Ms. Nixon is interested in team dynamics, particularly when they are filtered through prejudice and assumption.  Johnson provides a banquet of food for thought on this complicated subject.  Hours after the curtain, I found myself mulling over how I would handle Jaclyn as a boss, a co-worker or an HR professional.  That’s quite a takeaway from a little play.

Rasheeda Speaking is presented by The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center through March 22, 2015.  For tickets and information visit: http://www.thenewgroup.org/rasheeda-speaking.html

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