‘Rasheeda’ and ‘Irish’ — two plays address interpersonal race relations
Hedy Weiss Sun-Times Theater Critic January 29, 2014 4:44PM
Ora Jones (from left), Tara Mallen and Lorraine Freund star in “Rasheeda Speaking.” | Joe Mazza photo
‘Luck of the Irish,’ through Feb. 23, Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston. $30-$45. (847) 475-1875, ext. 2; nexttheatre.org. RECOMMENDED
‘Rasheeda Speaking,’ through Feb. 15, Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge. $30. (773) 334-7728; RivendellTheatre.org.
Updated: January 30, 2014 4:47PM
The precise origin of the term “post-racial America” remains up for grabs, but the notion certainly gained currency with Barack Obama’s arrival in the White House.
Go to the theater these days, however, and you will find more than a few dissenting opinions on the state of the nation where race is concerned. Current tensions may be more nuanced, but the prickliness remains. And you might just find yourself humming that priceless lyric from the musical “Avenue Q” that proclaims: “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”
Kirsten Greenidge’s multigenerational drama, “Luck of the Irish” — now at Next Theatre in an expertly acted production directed by Damon Kiely — is something of a latter-day version of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (and Bruce Norris’ more recent “Clybourn Park”), but it is set in Boston rather than Chicago. It flashes back to a real estate deal first made in the 1950s, and then examines the tensions that original deal brings to the surface in the 2000s.
Joel Drake Johnson’s “Rasheeda Speaking,” now in its world premiere at Rivendell Theatre, where a fine cast has been directed by Sandy Shinner, brings issues of race to the workplace (specifically, the office of a high-powered surgeon), with matters of sex, age and status also part of the mix.
Greenidge begins her play in the present, as Hannah (Lily Mojekwu), and her sister Nessa (Lucy Sandy), argue about the house they have inherited following their grandparents’ death. Hannah lives there with her husband, Rich (Austin Talley, the voice of normalcy, who you just want to hug), and their young son, Miles (zesty Mesiyah Oduro-Kwarten), who is having issues at school that Hannah attributes to racism. Nessa, just out of grad school and in need of money, wants to sell the place. But where is the title?
Flash back to the 1950s as the sisters’ grandparents, Rex Taylor (the expert André Teamer), a prospering black physician, and Lucy (the elegant Mildred Marie Langford), his quietly self-possessed, highly educated wife, are trying to buy this house in a tranquil, all-white neighborhood of Boston. A “broker” of sorts has set them up with a financially strapped Irish Catholic couple with six kids — the unemployed dreamer, Joe Donovan (fine work by Chris Rickett), and his ferocious, resentful wife, Patty Anne (Cora Vander Broek in an admirably uncompromising turn), who have agreed to put their name on the title for a fee, with the understanding they will immediately transfer that title to the Taylors.
The residual pain in both the black and white characters here is deftly limned as race continues to be a galvanizing issue.
Johnson’s “Rasheeda Speaking” might well tempt you to cry out: “Call the head of Human Resources and get him or her down to this office immediately!”
A dark satire of workplace manners that is insightful, but marred by its overly exaggerated behavior and situations, the story suggests how an enduring sense of racial discrimination can cloud otherwise ordinary interactions.
At its center are two women who work in the office of Dr. David Williams (Eric Slater), a repulsively narcissistic doctor. Ileen (Tara Mallen) is his highly competent veteran office manager. Jaclyn (Ora Jones) is a notably neurotic black woman who has recently joined the staff, and just returned to work after a one-week absence she blames on “the toxins” in the room. As it happens, the doctor manipulates Ileen into keeping a file on Jaclyn, who is a real piece of work, but someone he knows will be difficult to transfer.
While a certain black-white tension invades the room, Jaclyn, too, makes racist remarks, about her Mexican neighbors and others. She also is initially rude and insensitive to Rose (Lorraine Freund is perfection), the frail, elderly patient who comes to the office.
Mallen and Jones, superb actresses, create such an intolerable level of tension at their adjoining desks that it would be comic were it not all so warped and damaging.