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Black Theatre Troupe's Likable Rasheeda Speaking Is Full of Unlikable Characters

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I wondered, as I headed to a second-week performance of Black Theatre Troupe’s Rasheeda Speaking, if it would be possible for a production starring Lillie Richardson and Katie McFadzen to be lousy. Could it be in some way lacking if the supporting cast were Joseph Kremer and Pamela Fields? How bad could any evening of theater be if it were directed by Matthew Wiener?

I needn’t have worried. Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson’s tidy one-act isn’t perfect, but it offers interesting perspective and burnishes its rough edges with some real literary style. The cast and their director offset the script’s soft spots with sturdy acting and an obvious affection for the material.

Equal parts social-issues drama and psychological thriller, Johnson’s story is entertaining and light on commentary. Jaclyn (Richardson) is just returning to work in Dr. Williams’ (Kremer) medical office after five days of sick leave. He’s not happy to have her back, he tells Ileen (McFadzen), his right-hand gal who’s recently been promoted to office manager. Ileen’s new duties include keeping tabs on Jaclyn and creating a list of her transgressions that will allow Williams to fire her with minimal trouble from Human Resources. Jaclyn notices, and responds: She messes Ileen’s desk drawers; is rude to Rose (Pamela Fields), a sickly patient; and shamelessly schmoozes Williams.

Johnson has written a deplorable trio of characters, each with their own vices. Williams may be a racist who doesn’t like Jaclyn (whom he insists on calling Jackie), but so too may be Jaclyn, who tells mean-spirited stories about her Mexican neighbors. Ileen’s trouble is her ambivalence. Does she even like Jaclyn? How?

The production is beautifully cast — almost perfectly so. If each of its performances recall past work by its actors, it’s a sameness born of skill, and not from lack of depth. Richardson gives Jaclyn an almost maniacally jovial quality that makes credible her later swift shifts between mischief and meanness. (Her big speech toward the end of the play, in which she talks about riding the bus with white-collar white men, is played with such subtlety, one wonders if Jaclyn is making a point about racism or making up her tale as she goes along.) McFadzen, memorable in last year’s one-woman A Christmas Carol, gives Ileen plenty of room to move, offering a convincing leap from confident and content to a new, more unsteady understanding of her coworker.

Wiener keeps the emotional action moving with his usual polish, and Thom Gilseth’s single office set is handsomely furnished with mundane desks and doorframes, signaling to us that the story we’re about to see is a real-world drama. It’s illuminated by Jamie Arakas’s thoughtfully designed lighting, which complements four fine performances — the real reason to see this production — without competing with them.

Rasheeda Speaking continues through October 23 at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street. Visit blacktheatretroupe.org.

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