Identity politics have become a big part of our everyday life. There is always a tussle over who can be called a real American. If you act a certain way, you get the privilege of a peek into the construct of power in America, which is not the same as a seat at the table. Shattered Globe Theatre’s Rasheeda Speaking presents a look at the underbelly of racism in the woke age, where people are gaslighted into believing that what they are seeing is not what they see. They are being fed alternative facts and different takes on truth. Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson peels back the layers of mendacity that gives people a sense of power—or the opposite—being the underclass no matter how much you may strive. AmBer D. Montgomery directs Rasheeda Speaking.
Rasheeda Speaking is set in a generic-looking medical office in Chicago. Ilene Van Meter (Daria Harper) is getting ready for the patients coming to see Dr. David Williams (Drew Schad). Dr. Williams wants to talk to Ilene before her coworker Jaclyn arrives. Schad does a perfect take on the racist guy who smiles and takes up space in the room. He has the voice and the demeanor of a man who thinks he has it made, but there is a glitch in his perfectly constructed upscale office—a Black woman named Jaclyn (Deanna Reed-Foster). Dr. Williams confides in Ilene that Jaclyn took a leave of absence because of her mental health. He does not think that she is fit for the job and has an attitude that doesn’t fit in with his image as a surgeon. Ilene wants to believe that Jaclyn is harmless with her funny stories of life “in the hood” with loud Hispanic neighbors. However, Ilene is Dr. Williams’ first gaslighting target. He asks her to take notes and keep an eye on Jaclyn just to be sure that everything is documented because the laws make it so hard to get rid of people.
Dr. Williams stirs the pot and then sneaks off before Jaclyn comes to work. Deanna Reed-Foster is brilliant as Jaclyn. She brings a refreshing sense of humor and loves to mess with Ilene’s head telling outlandish stories of toxins in the office machinery. Jaclyn fills the office with plants and keeps a bag of crystals on her desk to act as a toxin filter. Reed-Foster plays this role with authenticity and heart. She is ebullient in one moment and then defeated when describing some of the insults and code language that is lobbed at her by nice young White men who live in the gentrified part of her neighborhood.
Daria Harper gives a great portrayal of the White woman who is just as manipulated by the doctor, her husband and son into thinking that Jaclyn is dangerous. Harper gives empathy to her character, which is especially tough because she is being roped into being an enabler of stereotypes. The dialog suggests that Ilene lives in Mt. Greenwood on the South Side when Jaclyn points out all of the police and firefighters who live in Ilene’s neighborhood. I would wager that most Black people in Chicago know about Mt. Greenwood because they have never crossed its border or have been chased out after wandering in lost.
The tide seems to turn against Jaclyn when a patient shows up and she performs as receptionist with the efficiency that she has been taught. Rose Saunders (Barbara Roeder Harris) is a dotty woman whose son drops her off but doesn’t make sure that his mom checks in properly. Harris is really funny as the old person who blurts out whatever they have heard. Jaclyn’s efficiency is too stringent in Ilene’s opinion and she takes over and embarrasses Jaclyn. Rose blurts out that her son told her that all Black people are looking for revenge because of slavery. It is a funny line and points out what the other characters are really thinking when they project the image of “angry Black woman” onto Jaclyn.
At this point the play turns into a game of cat and mouse. Dr. Williams engages with Jaclyn and calls her “Jackie” to diminutize her with over-familiarity. Jaclyn corrects him and reminds him that he is not her friend. She rearranges Ilene’s desk drawers and drills her asking what is she writing in her little red book and if is about her. They both lie to each other but only one is deliberately lying and the other is a conflicted victim of manipulation. Director AmBer D. Montgomery stages the action so tautly that it heightens the sense of claustrophobia and paranoia.
Rasheeda Speaking has characters that are broadly drawn, but it is also one of the things that I love about this show. Ilene as a villain is funny because she is great at playing the easily manipulated woman. Her fears are stoked to the point that she would be the woman calling the police on a birdwatcher, and tells them he is Black to make them get there quicker. It’s the White-woman-in-danger stereotype that women have been duped into believing because they obviously cannot make their own decisions about who is good and who is inferior. That is the job of men no matter the race. Schad does a stellar job as the villain. He brings an aura of simmering resentment to the role without histrionics. It takes some subtlety to play the bad guy and this is a a role that can be prone to histrionic moustache twirling.
The dialog and actions of Rasheeda Speaking may be triggering for some people. Perhaps they want to believe that these kinds of injustices and manipulation won’t happen on their watch. Rasheeda Speaking will certainly make some people take stock of their own behavior.
Rasheeda Speaking by Shattered Globe Theatre is playing at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through June 4. It runs 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $10 to $45 with discounts for seniors and students as well as pay-what-you-can Fridays to keep live theater accessible to everyone. Covid protocols are followed for all performances. Bring your vaccine card and ID or proof of a negative PCR test within 72 hours. Wear a mask at all times and in all areas of the theater. Keep the actors performing, the audience enjoying, and yourself thriving.
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!