By Hugh Hunter
“Rasheeda Speaking” is currently making its Philadelphia debut at Allens Lane Theater in West Mt. Airy. It’s a play that explores race relations in America, centering on Jaclyn, a middle-aged black woman who finally lands a decent job as a receptionist, but Dr. Williams (Tom Boland) plots to engineer her dismissal on grounds of “unprofessional behavior.”
He co-opts the other receptionist, Ileen, to spy on Jaclyn. He wants to build a case for dismissal that would pass muster with Human Resources management. Ileen, who is white, feels queasy about this project, but the doctor leans on her hard.
When you first meet Jaclyn, you see the doctor’s point of view. Jaclyn is brutally rude to a white cancer patient, Rose (Linda Palmarozza). But instead of the boss honestly addressing the problem, Jaclyn is confronted with office intrigue. She quickly sniffs it out and goes full bore into revenge mode.
Watching “Rasheeda Speaking,” I kept thinking of the Stagecrafters’ production of “Gaslight” (under the name “Angel Street”) last year. Director Scott R. Grumling develops an office set full of the same kind of control-freak clutter that impedes movement. When Jaclyn goes on the attack, she makes the doctor’s office her own, bringing in a large potted palm and various Trojan Horse “gifts.”
She turns the work place into a “Gaslight”-type torture chamber. Angie Henderson-Goode, in fine form, brings to the role an arresting mix of shifty looks and voice inflections. Deliberately opaque, it is impossible to distinguish contempt from vengeful joy as she plays out a long game of cat and mouse.
Leah O’Hara also excels as Ileen, a weak woman torn between conflicting loyalties. Jaclyn sows doubt and confusion as she rearranges Ileen’s desk, shows up for work at unexpected times and oozes with faux friendliness — head games that drive Ileen to near insanity.
Playwright Joel Drake Johnson developed the play after a run-in with an African American hospital receptionist. Johnson wrote a letter to complain of her rudeness, and she was fired. Johnson says, “I really felt horrible about it.” (Question: Why does Johnson assume his letter was the real cause of the firing?)
In any event, Johnson wants to connect the dots between endured injustice and poor behavior. He gives Jaclyn a few stories to tell, one about coded racial slurs on a Chicago bus. But these tales feel cardboard when set up against the lurid vibrancy of Jaclyn’s revenge plan, Jacobean in its monomania.
Jaclyn is fully absorbed with her sense of victimization, and Johnson wants the audience to feel the roots and depth of black anger. And I did feel angry, not because I thought I had entered into a world of black suffering but rather because the play demands that you share sympathetically in the joys of triumphant revenge.
Allens Lane Theater is located at 601 W. Allens Lane. “Rasheeda Speaking” will run through Dec. 3. More information at www.allenslane.org