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Why can’t we all just get along? In the world of Chicago-based playwright Joel Drake Johnson’s seering and darkly humorous new drama Rasheeda Speaking, the cause of racial harmony is thwarted by misunderstandings, half-truths, and unchecked passive aggression. (The New Group production runs through at Off Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center.)
The action begins in a taupe-heavy, linoleum-floored medical office where a youngish white surgeon (Darren Goldstein) is conferring with his just-promoted office manager, Ileen (Dianne Wiest), about how they can get rid of Ileen’s African American colleague, Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins). Jaclyn is scheduled to return to the office after a five-day absence prompted by complaints of mysterious “toxins” that have reduced her to sneezing fits and anxiety attacks.
There are definitely toxins in this office, but their source is just as hard to pinpoint as Jaclyn’s New Agey microbial attackers: They are the outgrowth of racism in its guarded, beat-around-the-George-W.-Bush 21st-century guise. Dr. Williams and Ileen retreat to the coded language of human resources, voicing fears that Jaclyn (whom the doctor stubbornly calls “Jackie”) will deploy the “race card.” But his complaints about job performance seem vague: Jaclyn “never looks me in the eye,” for instance, and he speaks of “wanting and needing to be comfortable in my own office, with a staff that likes me, that wants to be with me, work with me, hang in there with me and for me.”
To Johnson’s credit, Jaclyn is not presented as a model employee. She comes back to work armed with New Agey pamphlets and a small desk fan to draw the toxins away from her computer terminal. She can be brusque with patients to the point of callousness, and resorts to foolish pranks like swapping the contents of Ileen’s desk drawers when she’s not looking. She also spouts her own brand of racist thinking, complaining about her loud Latino neighbors “hollering in Mexican.” But she is a hard worker who senses, correctly, that the doctor does not like her (“he just looks right through me,” she tells Ileen) and that her job of six months is in jeopardy (a fact that Ileen tellingly denies). She also shows the restraint borne of years working for white bosses, as when an older patient (played by Patricia Connolly with befuddled, acid-tongued sweetness) speaks more overtly to Jaclyn about her curt behavior reflects “your culture” and “your way to get revenge for slavery.”
In her directorial debut, Tony- and Emmy-winning actress Cynthia Nixon manages a tricky balancing act, resisting easy caricature to push for more nuanced performances. She’s aided by her two leading ladies, both magnificent. To play the mousier, easily suggestible Ileen, Wiest must subvert her natural charisma and intelligence. Whether clutching her purse to her chest like a shield or moving her finger to acknowledge a hug from Jaclyn as a gesture of rapprochement, Wiest is a study in awkward passive aggression. Meanwhile, Pinkins flashes both spiky smarts and commanding self-possession. As mischievous and flawed as she is, her Jaclyn has no tolerance for intolerance, even cloaked in euphemism. And her grade-A B.S. detector slices right through the fog of the other characters’ wishy-washy talk of feelings and murky idealism. “I think we should get along,” Ileen tells Jaclyn plaintively at one point. “And I don’t,” Jaclyn replies. “We should do our jobs but we don’t need to get along.” The best way to achieve real progress, this provocative drama seems to suggest, is not to seek artificial solidarity but to respect genuine differences while working toward a common cause. Grade: B+