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 begun.
Yates is such a gifted artist and technician that when he goes for hyperrealism, 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. 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 in to 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.
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 with the threat of a "stand your ground" moment.
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 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 uniquely voiced, and frustratingly topical.
There's nobody in Rasheeda Speaking 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 in The Next Stage at Theatre Memphis through April 23rd