Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, Joel Drake Johnson, Rasheeda Speaking, Chicago, Theatre, Theater, Race,
A still from Rasheeda Speaking. Photo by Joe Mazza

This January, on Martin Luther King Day, Sarah Palin wrote a Facebook post,

“Mr. President, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all who commit to ending any racial divide, no more playing the race card.” Palin’s comment was thoroughly denounced by plenty of journalists as an insult to King’s legacy, but she speaks to an audience who are angry and afraid that actual equality—real opportunities for racial minorities—mean fewer opportunities for them. Racism is not over. We do not live in a post-racial society.

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s premiere production of Joel Drake Johnson’s Rasheeda Speaking (January 9-February 15, 2014), directed by Sandy Shinner, explores racial tensions in the contemporary workplace, focusing on the relationship between a white office manager and her black co-worker in a Chicago doctor’s office. The piece looks to explore, “What we are really saying when we refuse to talk about race.” The unnamed “we”: white people. When white people refuse to talk about race, we condone racism. We make it easier for other white people not to think about it. Members of racial minorities do not have the luxury of ignoring race. 

Rasheeda Speaking complicates mainstream liberal, white narratives about race relations. In the first scene, the conflict initially appears simple. A white male doctor (Eric Slater) asks his white office manager Ileen (Rivendell’s Artistic Director Tara Mallen) to document her black co-worker’s missteps so he can replace her with another worker who will be a “better fit.” His language is laced with microaggressions as his racist-sounding assumptions seep through the conversation. In this, Johnson sets him up as the antagonist and we, liberal audience members, are prepared to sympathize with Jaclyn (Ora Jones), his black victim. 

However, as the play unfolds, it becomes clear that there are no easy villains and victims. Jaclyn seems to me to be cruel and unreliable; if she were my co-worker, I would want to get rid of her, too. At her most benign, she is brusque and impatient with patients. At her worst, she makes Ileen cry, cackling at her victory. She tells horrible racist stories about the depravity of her Latino neighbors. These stories mark her word as unreliable, as just enough key details change in each telling for us to doubt their veracity. When she does tell a moving story of young, professional white men on the bus mocking middle aged black women with the nickname “Rasheeda,” the point of the story lands—racism is not a thing of the past—but neither Ileen nor the audience is totally certain the story is true. This is highly ironic, as the story Jaclyn tells in the play represents a real experience playwright Joel Drake Johnson overheard on a Chicago bus. The story is a true one.

Jaclyn is not inherently evil. She is afraid she will lose a job she worked hard to get and tortures Ileen to try to make her own position more secure. She responds in out-of-the-box ways to a passive aggressive work environment in which she is constantly lied to. Her anger and fear are reactions to an unrelenting stream of tiny acts of racism she cannot escape or control and experiences every day at both institutional and personal levels. However, her actions are so horrible, the audience does not get the comfortable experience of rooting for the underdog. 

Johnson chose to characterize Jaclyn as “an active fighter for her dignity, and the smartest person in the room.” Johnson says, “I have been seeing too many plays in which a middle age black women—in times of adversary—start quoting the Bible and singing hymns—and that seems so cliché and so reductive. And totally passive.” He did not want her to be reactive, but to pursue her goal to keep her job “no matter what she had to sacrifice”. 

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble is a feminist theater, focusing specifically on producing plays exploring female experiences, engaging female artists and audiences in challenging work.  From this mission, I can assume its audience tends to self-identify as liberal. I saw the production on press opening, and as a result Rivendell’s fifty-seat house was filled with critics and members of the selection committee for the Jeff Awards. This population, in Chicago, is mostly white—and so, on the night I saw this show, I saw it with a mostly white audience. Artistic Director Tara Mallen tells me the production has, on other nights, had a far more diverse audience. She finds that, generally, black audience members are more comfortable laughing openly at the play’s bleak humor, and that their open laughter helps ease some of the tensions of engaging with the inherently difficult subject matter.

I sat in the predominantly white audience on press opening, watching the play unfold in an intensely focused but quiet house, hating Jaclyn for her cruelty. It made me profoundly uncomfortable. All of the white characters have overtly racist moments. The doctor casually suggests, “You know how they are.” A white patient (Lorraine Freund) suggests Jacklyn is “angry about slavery.” Ileen brings a gun to work to defend herself against a black woman who has been mean to her but has shown no signs of violent behavior. In those moments, my instinct is to pat myself on the back—those other white people are racist, but I know better. But because Jacklyn seems so cruel, I root with the other characters for her to be fired. I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling of discomfort during the show.

The scenic design of the doctor’s office includes a bold graphic list of Chicago neighborhoods, reminding the audience that this story takes place here, highlighting the continuing racial segregation in the city in which we all live. Rivendell is located in the Edgewater neighborhood on the predominantly white side of the city. The play takes place in a doctor’s office downtown, near the Northwestern Memorial Hospital complex in Streeterville, just off the luxury shopping of Michigan Avenue’s Maginificent Mile. Jaclyn takes the Chicago Avenue bus to work from the predominantly Latino West Side of the city, through an affluent neighborhood of luxury condos built over the razed, now-defunct Cabrini Green housing project. The segregated geography of Chicago reflects ongoing racial divisions. 

Rebecca Stevens recently asked on HowlRound, “Can a white person write, adapt, direct, or perform stories from a different culture or race?” Privilege, after all, places economic and representational advantage in white hands, and, as Stevens puts it, “when an artist from a position of privilege renders a perspective or pulls from source material outside of their own culture, it is impossible to coolly debate the implications of this sort of work.”

Mallen acknowledges the anxiety she, Joel Drake Johnson, and Sandy Shinner felt, as white artists, embarking upon this play. “There was a huge fear on going into it that somebody would say, ‘you don’t have the right to tell this story,’” Mallen tells me.  Johnson concurs, “I didn’t know if I had the ‘right’ as a gay white male playwright to create a play that revolved around the journey of a middle aged black woman?” Despite those anxieties, the production, as Johnson puts it, creates “an environment that makes clear the way black women are often treated in the workplace—often with suspicion of their character, their abilities, and their culture, suspicions that distance them from their colleagues and their bosses—and can create a lot of anxiety for black women”.

Mallen recognizes racial divisions as a gaping wound upon the city’s landscape and wanted to “get very intentional about choosing work addressing issues we all confront and don’t want to talk about.” Racial tensions are, indeed, white people’s problem, too—they cannot be ignored, and white artists have a responsibility to own them and make an effort to engage with them openly, even when that is not necessarily comfortable.

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Image: A still from Rasheeda Speaking. Photo by Joe Mazza