Karamu Theatre’s production of ‘Rasheeda Speaking’ is a strong voice in the right direction
Spoiler Alert: Parts of this review contains details that may give away certain elements of this play. Continue at your own risk.
In spite of the social advances made over the last five decades there are people in this country who are still judged by history and heritage with more emphasis on perception rather than projection. This is the core theme of the Karamu Theatre production of Joel Drake Johnson’s Rasheeda Speaking directed by Sarah May.
The setting is a medical office in a large complex (big enough to have a Human Resource Department). Doctor David Williams (John Busser) realizes he made a mistake six months ago in hiring Jaclyn Spaulding (Treva Offutt) a woman of color who is brazen, bold and not afraid to speak her mind. Dr. Williams has enlisted the help of his mature white newly appointed “office manager,” Ileen Van Meter (Mary Alice Beck) who has worked for the Doctor for the past eight years. Her new duty is to “keep tabs” on Jaclyn and write down any office behavior that they can use to get Jaclyn transferred or fired via Human Resources.
This puts Ileen in a very difficult position. By nature she is a gentle woman who wants to be friends with everyone no matter what the cost. Her husband and son have filled her head with conspiracy theories concerning blacks who meet secretly in basements planning to take over the country. Her boss wants her to spy on a fellow employee and Jaclyn is not making it easier through her abrupt actions, African inspired clothing and disdainful treatment of patients and fellow workers.
Jaclyn suffers from a variety of ailments both real and imagined mostly brought on by the stress of trying to fit into a “white” world. She has just returned from five days of sick leave due to anxiety attacks. Her “doctor” has suggested live plants and black crystals to ward off the bad vapors from the copy machine and nearby medical labs as well as a fan to dissipate the “invisible but harmful rays” coming off the computer screen. She talks about her noisy Latino neighbors (referred to as “the Mexicans”) who have “lowered the property values of her neighborhood” and now have a pregnant 15 year old daughter with a live-in cousin as the father.
When Jaclyn rides the Chicago Transit Authority bus to work she shares it with other women of color who work all of the lower end jobs needed to keep the city running (cleaning women, maids, lunch counter workers, etc.) as well as upwardly mobile young white men. These men group themselves on the bus and as the various women depart they do a “Rasheeda Count” calling out “Rasheeda One…Rasheeda Two” and so forth with Rasheeda being a thinly veiled term for the “N” word.
At the office things have come to a head as Jaclyn has secretly read the notebook detailing her offensives and in retaliation rearranged Ileen’s desk and drawers then swearing on a Bible she did not do it. With all the pressure put on her, Ileen slowly begins to become unhinged. At one point she arrives at the office in a disheveled state with a gun in her purse, announcing to the Doctor that she cannot deal with the stress and that she is leaving.
Jaclyn exits the office bathroom having overheard the entire conversation dressed in conservative business attire with an entirely new demeanor and attitude. Her new look and actions even convince a recently lambasted patient, Rose Saunders (Rhoda Rosen) that they have hired a new woman as Jaclyn announces to the Doctor that with Ileen departing, she will be taking over as the new office manager. In essence, Jaclyn has learned to “play the game” changing her entire look and actions in order to fit into a social fabric.
Although this play carries mature themes there is no profanity in it. The stage set is impressive with all of the little touches needed to make a convincing “lived-in” office. No detail is lacking. Lighting is well appointed with accent lights throughout the office area. Costuming is well thought out and appropriate for the various characters with changes corresponding to each succeeding day.
This play is a complex examination of the still lingering silent (and at times not so silent) prejudices that still haunt our nation. While not attempting to solve the issue it gives voice to the situation which in turn may open up dialog between various elements of our society…topical, socially relevant and well worth seeing.
The Production Crew includes Sarah May, Director; Richard H. Morris, Jr., Lighting Design; Ben Needham, Scenic Designer; India Blatch-Geib, Costume Design; Brielle McGrew, Costumer; Jaime Weinfeld, Stage Manager; Prophet Seay, Master Carpenter; Kenneth Wheeler, Charles Morton and Keenan Cobb, Carpenters; Cliffie Jones, Props Mistress and Quinton Jenkins, Sound Designer/Operator.
Rasheeda Speaking will be performed in the Karamu Arena Theater through November 20, 2016. Tickets may be purchased by calling the Karamu Box Office at (216) 795-7077 or on-line at email@example.com.