Writer: Joel Drake Johnson
Director: Jonathan O’Boyle
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
After causing some controversy in Chicago, where it is set, and New York, Rasheeda Speaking now receives its UK premiere in the snug upstairs space at the Trafalgar Studios. The play’s frank examination of a relationship between a white woman and a black woman, both working as receptionists in a doctor’s surgery, has divided audiences back in The States, and while race relations may not be as incendiary in the UK as they are there, Rasheeda Speaking still has plenty to say to British audiences.
Jaclyn has just returned to work after having a week off sick. She’s been having anxiety attacks, perhaps caused by the toxins in the air, which are creeping into her office from the nearly medical laboratory. While she’s been away her colleague Ileen has been promoted to office manager, and their boss, Dr Williams, has started proceedings to fire Jaclyn. The doctor persuades Illeen to help him make a case against Jaclyn: they feel that they have to move carefully because, as Jaclyn is black, they don’t want to be labelled as racist.
While Jaclyn is loud and brash, we only see one incident that could be called a sackable offence. When a patient arrives early for her appointment Jaclyn gives her very short shrift, and Ileen logs the incident in her little black book, which the doctor has given her. But soon it becomes increasingly apparent that rather than her work, it is her skin colour which is the problem. Perhaps the toxins in the air that Jaclyn fears are created by the underlying and inherent racism in this doctor’s office, and, of course, America at large. As Jacyln suggests some white men seem to hang together with ‘the same joke to tell.’
The play’s serious issues come with some brilliant humour, all delivered by a cast at the top of their game. Tanya Moodie as Jaclyn is instantly believable and likeable, her imposing presence towers over the neat, corporate set designed by Anna Reid. Elizabeth Berrington excels as Ileen, edgy and malleable, caught between doing the right thing and doing what her boss tells her to do. When Ileen resorts to desperate measures, Berrington ensures that it remains within the realms of possibility. In a slightly underwritten role Bo Poraj gives his surgeon-doctor the sliminess and the cunning of a city financier. He certainly confirms Jaclyn’s suggestion that surgeons lack empathy. The one patient we do see does, unfortunately, fall into the stereotype of dotty old woman, but Sheila Reid’s comic timing makes up for this. And, anyway, it’s the relationship between Jacyln and Ileen that is the heart of this play.
Rasheeda Speaking is set over four days and the changes of day are heralded by such bright, breakfast music by Max Perryment that it would have been good to hear more of it, but under Jonathan O’Boyle’s speedy direction this 90-minute show never misses a beat. It’s a smart confident play, and when the reason for its title is revealed towards the end, heartbreakingly poignant too.
Runs until 12 May 2018 | Image: Mitzi de Margary