NEW YORK (AP) — When the subject is racism, many people start to feel uncomfortable. Defensive or outraged; pick your side. It's not a neutral topic, and "Rasheeda Speaking,"a new play by Joel Drake Johnson, doesn't sugarcoat.
The New Group is presenting the dark comedy in a provocative production that opened Wednesday night off-Broadway, starring Ileen Wiest and Tonya Pinkins under Cynthia Nixon's directorial debut. With that caliber of seasoned professionals, you know you're going to get a rich theatrical experience despite the prickly subject matter.
Oscar-winner Wiest and Tony Award-winner Pinkins are both masterly in their portrayal of once-friendly co-workers in a doctor's office. Their boss, a casually racist white surgeon, is played by Darren Goldstein as unctuous and manipulative. The doctor tries to persuade Ileen (Wiest) to make a secret record of anything her African-American co-worker, Jaclyn (Pinkins), does that he can use to make a case for firing her. His flimsy excuse is that Jaclyn doesn't make eye contact with him, so he can't trust her.
Pinkins is gloriously committed to her character, as Jaclyn figures out what's going on and ramps up her campaign to keep her job. Pinkins makes Jaclyn both appealing in her situation and off-putting with her increasingly confrontative actions. Nixon's taut direction allows for silences that are as tense as when the women are arguing.
Wiest makes Ileen seem so fragile and sensitive and just plain nice that the audience is more sympathetic to her, as the tension increases and humorous moments give way to hostile exchanges. The women's desks are claustrophobically close, and the walls seem to close in as Pinkins, physically larger, keeps on pushing Ileen's buttons in carefully worded provocations. Jaclyn reveals a defensive mean streak that makes the audience gasp more than once, and Wiest seems to shrivel in the unpleasant atmosphere.
Johnson has a gift for writing natural-sounding dialogue, and both women are gifted at shading the meaning of every line as their relationship breaks down. He's incorporated many of the subtle ways that people's prejudices can be revealed, as well as an occasional bombshell and some good old-fashioned eavesdropping to move things along. He puts some of the most cringe-worthy words into the mouth of an elderly patient, played with ever-so-sweet insensitivity by Patricia Conolly.
"Rasheeda Speaking" leaves a memorable impression of how passive-aggressive racism and suppressed prejudices play out in our everyday lives.