In the first few moments of Cynthia Nixon’s bold directorial debut Rasheeda Speaking, it seems highly unlikely that this play about race and racism at a small doctor’s office will offer much of a nuanced, gray area. You’ve got a prejudiced Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein, smarmy in totally other ways than he is on Showtime’s The Affair), asking his loyal office manager Ilene (two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest) to keep a notebook recording the transgressions of her African-American friend and colleague Jaclyn (Tony winner Tonya Pinkins) so he can fire her. “She’s not meant for this office,” he tells his faithful soldier with recognizable code words. “Too angry, too mad at the world.”
But the strength in Joel Drake Johnson’s words and Nixon’s fine direction of The New Group’s latest is that, for the most part, the play resides—ever so uncomfortably—in the gray area, in what is spoken beyond what is said. Ilene warns her friend Jaclyn, “You need to be careful”, while documenting each drop of water that ends up on the floor instead of in a plant. Her descent from oblivious sweetness into dangerous paranoia is as gradual and unnerving as quicksand. Jaclyn, too, is far from an innocent saint, telling offensive stories about those Mexican neighbors and getting back at Ilene with petty office drama. Wiest and Pinkins masterfully throw around the kind of smile-filled jabs that leave scars.
But the play truly belongs to Pinkins, whose performance (especially her monologue that provides this play with its title) is so arresting and powerful, it’s understandable why Pinkins recently told The New York Times that she’s gone home depressed after playing Jaclyn. By the end of the intermission-free 95 minutes, Wiest’s legs may be shaking with anxiety, but the audience is stunned into stillness. A-
(Tickets: www.thenewgroup.org )