Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Human Resources: Rasheeda Speaks Loud and Clear at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Tue, Apr 11, 2017 at 10:38 AM

click to enlarge Neither of these women are Rasheeda
  • Neither of these women are Rasheeda
Well, that was awkward. A poor audience member, tricked by the convincing verisimilitude of Jack Yates’ set design, walked right into the theater and attempted to use a fake public restroom built down stage right. Yeah, that happened. It wasn’t as embarrassing as it could have been though, since the show hadn’t yet started, and it was pretty clear, once you got beyond the toilet door, there was no privacy, and no real facilities in the onstage facilities. But good theater is made of good illusions, and, in this case, as I’ve mentioned already, Rasheeda Speaking — a tense comedy about race, gender, office life and the way we work now — hadn’t even begun.

Yates is such a gifted artist and technician his uncanny ability to build complete, lived-in spaces can actually be a challenge for less challenging productions. When nothing’s left to the imagination, imaginations don’t always engage as powerfully as they might. But Rasheeda Speaking is a different kind of stage story, and it benefits from playing out in such a familiar place — A surgeon’s clean, brightly lit waiting room in some anonymous professional building in some city, somewhere, just like every other city in America. This is Everyoffice, and the audience is dropped right behind the fabled fourth wall, where it’s encouraged to slip into full voyeur mode, and witness icky banal conversations never meant for public consumption. Add to this picture a trio of solid performances from Anne Marie Caskey, Brian Everson, and Dusty Walsh, and an extraordinarily confident one from Jessica “Jai” Johnson, and it’s easy to give into the fantasy and pretend it’s all happening right there in front of you — that there really are sinks and stalls just beyond the clearly marked restroom door. You can almost smell the urinal puck.

Rasheeda Speaking opens with the Surgeon (Everson) instructing his newly appointed office manager (Caskey) to observe her co-worker Jaclyn (Johnson) and take detailed notes. “Jackie,” as he calls her, doesn’t really fit in. She’s angry, he says, acknowledging that won’t be a good enough reason for the Human Resources department to let her go, or move her to another, more appropriate position. This opening conversation establishes a familiar, flirty and manipulative relationship between the doctor and his submissive senior staff member. It doubles as instruction to the audience/jury. The strong, quirky, slightly sadistic black woman they’re about to meet, is officially exotic, and absolutely on trial for it.

That’s all misdirection. While we’re all busy watching Jaclyn (She prefers Jaclyn), and wondering if she may be genuinely toxic, the doctor and his mousey spy unravel in even more dramatic ways. What begins as a variety of harassment suits waiting to happen ends in absurd hysteria and the terrifying threat of a “stand your ground” moment. 
click to enlarge Sometimes the set's the star.
  • Sometimes the set's the star.

It’s worth mentioning that both playwright Joel Drake Johnson and director Jerry Chipman are white guys, only because it’s worth asking whether or not we really need more deep thoughts on race and gender politics from a white guy’s POV. Thing is, Rasheeda Speaking is deliberately exploitative, putting its one brown face and two women on exhibit for study in an otherwise petty drama of arrested development, and playground paternalism. From coded beginnings, to unmistakable outbursts, it’s a native habitat diorama, instructing us on how white folks are when they don’t think any black people are in the bathroom listening. It’s never exactly what you think it is — uniquely voiced, and frustratingly topical.

Nobody in Rasheeda Speaking is named Rasheeda. It’s a name, we’re told, a group of young white professionals —liberals by implication — have mockingly given to all working class black women. It’s an inside joke they felt comfortable laughing about day after day on the bus to work. Jaclyn agrees to be called Jackie, but when the indignities pile up she surrenders to this minstrel stereotype the way Bruce Banner surrenders to the Hulk. That’s when phones get answered, “Rasheeda speaking!” It’s a messy moment, in a messy play. It’s the realest thing you’ll see on stage this week.

Rasheeda Speaking
is at Theatre Memphis through April 23.

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