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Rasheeda Speaking review at Trafalgar Studios, London – ‘engaging study of workplace racism’

Tanya Moodie in Rasheeda Speaking at Trafalgar Studios, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The anti-black racism of modern day white America can take many forms. Joel Drake Johnson’s Rasheeda Speaking, coming to London after runs in New York and Chicago (where the play is set), attempts — and often succeeds — to portray the people and sensibilities across this broad, bigoted spectrum.

Jaclyn (Tanya Moodie) is a black woman who works alongside Ileen (Elizabeth Berrington), a white woman, for Dr Williams (Bo Poraj), a white man. The two women share an office, and the play begins after Jaclyn has been off work sick for five days. She later claims the toxins in the air of the office, some of which may be emanating from Ileen, are attacking her, but Dr Williams has already revealed her doctors claim that she has been suffering from anxiety attacks. It seems they are both right.

Rasheeda Speaking is a play about the said and unsaid, the words and thoughts that linger in the air around us, even when we are not there. Over the course of Jonathan O’Boyle’s tightly directed, 90 minute production (that, impressively, doesn’t drag), the audience is privy to murky office politics that are complimented by are Anna Reid’s smart, simple design.

Dr Williams’ quietly manipulates Ileen to take notes about her colleague’s unsavoury behaviour and Jaclyn herself engages in a series of odd acts from rudeness towards elderly patients to petty mind games.

The acting frequently excellent. Poraj’s Dr Williams is smarmy and slick in all the right ways, allowing the subtlety of his dog whistle comments about Jaclyn to really sting. Berrington plays Ileen with just the right amount of hand-wringing fragility that allows her eventual leap into racist paranoia to feel both surprising but also less far-fetched than it should be. Sheila Reid is similarly pitch-perfect as an elderly patient who doesn’t pause before coming out with impressively racist musings to Jaclyn’s face.

Moodie, at the centre of all this, plays the breadth of Jaclyn’s strange behaviour with vulnerability and great comic timing. The play’s most brilliant, vibrant moment is a long monologue towards the end of the play in which Jaclyn tells Ileen about her morning bus ride with white professionals. The way Moodie plays this is wonderful.

While the play tackles the weight of insidious racism in the workplace, the complexities of the characters can feel undefined, their motivations incomprehensible and their actions bizarre.

The attempts to show that racism can have shades of grey — like Jaclyn’s comments about Muslims and Mexicans — feel heavy-handed, and there’s little interrogation of the structures that allow Jaclyn to be treated in this way.

However the last 10 minutes, and the questions they pose about how much of Jaclyn’s on-stage behaviour was ‘real’ as opposed to a fiction of Ileen’s imagination, make Rasheeda Speaking a play well worth seeing.

Director Jonathan O’Boyle: ‘After treading water in my 20s, I wanted to go on and not look back’

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Engaging, if deeply unsettling, portrayal of racism in the American workplace.