Playwright Joel Drake Johnson examines a chronic condition with ‘Rasheeda Speaking’.
In the last few years it seems the stage has seen an increasing number of shows that want to know what we talk about — or don’t talk about — when we talk about race. From Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Clybourne Park” to Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts,” that deeply troubling facet of the American identity has received a much-deserved going-over. Now, playwright Joel Drake Johnson adds to the conversation with “Rasheeda Speaking,” making its world premiere with the Rivendell Theatre Ensemble.
The show is a dark comedy that tells the story of a successful white physician who attempts to oust his black receptionist (played by Steppenwolf ensemble member and Chicago stage veteran Ora Jones) by enlisting her white female co-worker (played by RTE Artistic Director Tara Mallen) as a spy. Like many artistic endeavors, the plot springs from a seemingly mundane moment in the playwright’s personal experience: an encounter with a less-than-helpful hospital receptionist. “When I complained, the doctor told me he was going to get rid of her,” recalls Johnson, “even though part of the problem had to do with the doctor’s lack of regard for patients.”
Johnson took that moment and wove it into a play that, on a larger level, explores what it means to live in “post-racial” America — but the average office place setting means the tension covers many levels. “Joel tends to work in an intimate personal way that has deep resonance in the larger world,” says director Sandy Shinner, who has helmed a number of Johnson’s works. “He has brought together people from different neighborhoods to what should be a safe space, a space in which the quality of the work should be the only factor for success. But, of course, that is not the case. This is a play about how easily trust begins to fray, as well as about race. Joel has listened carefully to differing points of view and experience in our racially divided city, and has authentically crafted the details of everyday conversation in the workplace. It is funny and sad to watch these characters struggle to find common ground.”
Like much of his prior work (“Four Places, “A Guide for the Perplexed”), “Rasheeda” manifests Johnson’s curiosity “about people’s lives, the concerns and problems they have and how they go about solving their problems,” he says. “How that attempt uncovers their frailty, their mistakes, their tragedy — but also their work to triumph, no matter how good or bad the choices they make.”
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