Sunday, November 06, 2016

RASHEEDA SPEAKING features strong performances @ Karamu

As the lights come up on Joel Drake Johnson’s RASHEEDA SPEAKING at Karamu, a shadow of a woman can be seen through the textured door window of a doctor’s office. 

Inside, Dr. Williams is discussing with Ileen, a long-time employee, and newly appointed office manager, the fact that Jaclyn, the other secretary, has been off sick for the last five days, and he is not thrilled to have her back.  He shares with Ileen that he doesn’t think Jaclyn “fits in” and has discussed with human resources the possibility of replacing her. 

In order to accomplish the coup, the doctor must have proof of Jaclyn’s incompetency.  He tells Ileen that in her new administrative position, she is to write down all of Jaclyn’s actions. 

As the conversation comes to a conclusion, the door opens revealing Jaclyn, who has been waiting outside.  She is African-American, the other two white.

Within a few minutes Jaclyn is complaining about the status of her plants and how the office is filled with toxins. She is abrupt on the phone, treats Mrs. Saunders, an elderly patient, with disdain, upsetting the already confused old lady.   Jaclyn later confides to Ilene that she knows the doctor doesn’t like her.

Is Dr. Williams a racist, or, as Jaclyn has demonstrated, is she not a good fit in an office where she has to deal with patients?

In a revealing scene, Jaclyn tells of an instance where, on her Chicago bus, young white professional men refer to “stern, frozen-faced middle-aged black women like her, as ‘Rasheedas.’”

The tension between Ileen and Jaclyn increases as the latter secretly mixes up items in the former’s desk drawers, misplaces folders on Ileen’s desk, brings the office manager a present and then asks for it back.  Jaclyn keeps changing personalities as she is first nasty to Mrs. Saunders, then is overly nice, nasty on the phone, then sugary-nice.

Ileen’s demeanor changes from pleasant to suspicious to fearful. Conflicts arise.  Where is the hole punch to be kept?  Does the water spilled on the floor while Jaclyn tends to her plants cause a potential slipping danger?  Who is to bring the morning pastry?  Is Jaclyn to be included in the daily patient information sessions?

The script leaves you scrambling to puzzle out its implications, which would not be bad, if there were any real implications to draw.  

While the tension and power struggle spinning out of control is often fascinating and comical, it all seems contrived.  The behaviors of all the characters are often too erratic, and occasionally so extreme that it seems the playwright is just playing with the audience, interested in teasing and taunting with no real purpose.  Instead of getting a true picture of racism in the work place, or the conflict of black-white relationships, or differences of members of a race interpreting the verbal and nonverbal patterns of others, we find ourselves in search of a purpose for the script.

The problem is not caused by director Sarah May or her cast. 

May nicely paces the action, keys the laughs, and has worked for clear stage pictures and effective character development. 

Treva Offutt nicely textures her performance as the eccentric and manipulative Jaclyn. Mary Alice Beck wilts before our eyes as the “nice” Ileen who becomes a gun-carrying basket case of emotions.  John Busser is consistent in his character development of Doctor Williams, and long-time Cleveland-area award-winning actress, Rhoda Rosen, delights as Mrs. Saunders.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The play has lots of laughs and some intriguing situations, but RASHEEDA SPEAKING proves that fine acting and good directing cannot always cover up for a rudderless script. 

RASHEEDA SPEAKING continues through, November 4, 2016 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street, which has a fenced, guarded and lighted parking lot adjacent to the theatre, and provides free parking.  For ticket information call 216-795-7077.

Watch for big changes at Karamu.  Starting in January major renovations will take place to create “new” Jelliffe and Arena Theatres, with funding supplied by a $1.8 million grant from the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission.   These changes will necessitate production venue changes for the rest of this season.  Check on the website,, to ascertain where future shows will be produced.