Racism repressed and expressed sans politesse is on display in Joel Drake Johnson’s “Rasheeda Speaking” in Vantage Theatre’s latest production, playing through March 13 at La Jolla Commons Theatre.
The plot concerns smarmy surgeon Dr. Williams (Steve Oliver), who wants to get rid of Jaclyn (Milena Phillips), the black member of his office staff so he can hire someone he likes better.
But he is aware that Human Resources laws apply and he’ll have to be able to document his reasons. As it happens, Jaclyn can truthfully be said to have a bit of a prickly personality (“Too angry, too mad at the world,” says Williams), but that won’t be enough to fire her.
So the doctor first promotes receptionist Ileen (Dori Salois) to office manager and then asks her to observe and document Jaclyn’s transgressions for him. Ileen doesn’t like the idea of spying on her friend, but she is a good soldier and this job is important to her.
Jaclyn returns to work (late) after a five-day sick leave (she thinks the problem is “toxins in the air”) and proceeds to grouch about the “mess” of folders needing attention on her desk.
Then she practically accuses Ilene of trying to kill her plants by failing to water them. As she runs around with a watering can, Ilene documents each spilled drop.
The play progresses into a sort of verbal cage match with passive aggression on prominent display, as each side is goaded into offensive remarks about other groups of people.
Jaclyn is no naif when it comes to racism; she’s lived it every day of her life. She blows off steam with offensive comments about her Mexican neighbors.
When elderly patient Rose (June Gottleib) enters, Jaclyn gives her a grief about not checking in on the first floor before coming up to the doctor’s office.
Ilene jumps in to smooth the rocky encounter, but documents the event. Rose offers that Jaclyn’s ‘tude might have something to do with “revenge for slavery.”
Sooner or later, each character will exhibit racist attitudes. Jaclyn, aware that her job is on the line, defends herself the only way she knows how: by manipulation.
The playwright’s point is a bit muddled and so are the characters’ motivations, but the script plays out provocatively anyway.
“Rasheeda Speaking” (you’ll find out about Rasheeda in a long and wonderful monologue by Jaclyn) is a 95-minute intermissionless shocker of a play that may make you examine your own attitudes and thoughtless comments.
The cast is competent all around, but the star is Phillips, who gives Jaclyn all the strength, cleverness and resilience being black in this country requires without overlooking the brusqueness and defensiveness that has her character in trouble to begin with.
La Jolla Commons Theatre is a new theater venue within the La Jolla Congregational Church. You might want to bring a pillow.
“Rasheeda Speaking” plays through March 6, 2016 at La Jolla Commons Theatre, 1216 Cave Street (corner of Ivanhoe), La Jolla.
Friday at 7 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 5 pm
Tickets: (858) 859-2281 or www.vantagetheatre.com