The world of office politics can sometimes be a petty microcosm of the worst side of human nature. As someone who has worked in an office, I am familiar with this strange world of tiny battles and bubbling undercurrents. When race and human prejudices rear their ugly head, you have a powder-keg ready to blow at the slightest drop of a hole- puncher. That spark is Rasheeda Speaking! A story rooted in the mundane life of receptionists, but with so much to say about the state of the modern world and the values that we hold, sometimes without knowing.
The battle is set in a doctor’s studio in Chicago and we are ushered into the fight by the experienced Irene (played by Elizabeth Berrington) and Dr. Williams (Bo Poraj) who are discussing how to fire the offstage Jaclyn (played by Tanya Moodie). The war that is planned seems a simple tale of office sniping, and although that is a story in itself, this play sets its sights very much higher. From what begins as a set of missed communications, petty grievances and ships-in-the night like interactions, we see a poisonous atmosphere descend like nerve gas over the office. As I am sure manly of us will have experienced in our own working lives, the interactions between Jaclyn and Irene begin over seemingly small things, but hide something far more sinister. A friendship that is ripped apart by Dr. Williams) turning the two women against each other, promoting Irene, and trying to get rid of Jaclyn after five days away. What blooms, however, is something so much more poignant, fresh and insightful, a story of the prejudices that lurk behind the eyes of the people who are supposedly good, fair and reasonable.
Moodie’s portrayal of Jaclyn questions everything we think we know about the stereotypes of black women in theatre. She is defensive, loud, frighteningly clever, manipulative, and Moodie’s craft as an actor really shines in inhabiting Jaclyn. She is playful, with a tough exterior and a complex heart and Moodie so easily turns the trope of the ‘angry black woman’ on its head, exposing its ludicrousness. Rasheeda Speaking avoids the pitfalls that a story of institutional discrimination can sometimes plummet down. Although it does expose the deep-seated nature of racism, it avoids the classic victim, aggressor role, treading a more nuanced and interesting power play between the characters in this fascinating piece. In tandem, Berrington’s move from friendly co-worker to revealing her true colours on race gives us an insight into the supposed ‘not everyone’s a racist’ mentality that can sometimes hide some of the worst held prejudices. All this, but told with a humour and pace that carries the audience through painful subject matter with flow and style? Seems too much to ask right? Clearly not…
There are three moments where this wonderful show really comes together for me, when the exquisite performances blend with the wonderful writing of Joel Drake Johnson. The first is a moment where Jaclyn is forced to swear on the Bible to prove she isn’t lying (when she is). This is wonderful as it humanises her character, she lies and plays dirty like everyone else, and although she has to fight extreme racism, she is still a flawed human in an even more flawed word. The second and possible highlight of the show is the section that explains the title. Moodie’s, sing-song, expressive monologue encapsulates everyday racism and is moving, powerful and humbling, as she explains the code rich white men use to abuse black women on the bus without being discovered. Last but not least, the fascinating distortion in Berrington’s role, from friendly, fair co-worker to the unmasking of deeply held racism. This is a moment that you could feel shocks the audience as it is so wonderfully hidden within Irene’s characters physic. Berrington’s nervous panic almost makes you pity this ignorant manipulated woman-almost- and the ability to humanise the hateful is a real skill as an actor. This constant changing of intensity is also another one of the shows many achievements, with snappy writing, knock out performances and a pace that sucks you into these all too common issue Rasheeda Speaking comes in swinging and doesn’t stop.
It is rare for me to appreciate a show so much that I have nothing bad to say, and Rasheeda Speaking is almost an acceptation, with only a picky point on how little work the two characters do this show is blemish-less. It is crammed full too bursting with important points on something that I am sure everyone in the audience has some familiarity with, be it harassment in the workplace, racism, the destruction of a friendship or the darkest parts of our shared history. The production has it all, and in this complex, intelligent and modern view of racial dynamics, it blows a hole in the notions we have about racism and how it affects everyday life. We have a long way to go, both in American and worldwide and Rasheeda Speaking proves that although the words have changed, the hate remains the same. Be ready to question your own views on race as although this production is set and created in America, it has something for everyone to learn from. With its confidence and humour, it really is a force to be reckoned with! Take your friends, lovers and co-workers (if you dare) and I guarantee you will not come out unchanged.
Rasheeda Speaking played at The Trafalgar Studios 2 until 12 May
Photo: Mitzi de Margary