The theater at Allens Lane Arts Center will put on a production of ‘Rasheeda Speaking,’ a play that encourages the audience to think about racial perceptions.
No, that’s not the character’s real name. It’s a moniker assigned to the fictional office worker by a stranger on the bus, and after the week she’s had in the stage play titled after that quote, it’s the last thing she needs to hear.
The theater at Allens Lane Arts Center will present Philadelphia’s first production of Rasheeda Speaking with its debut Nov. 17. The show’s director, assistant director and actress all hail from the Northeast, and say the show is especially relevant in today’s political climate.
“Look around us,” said Tom Ryan, the play’s assistant director. “It really is a story that’s resounding right now.”
The play is described as a blend between a workplace comedy and psychological thriller. It follows two office workers, Rasheeda and Ileen, who are black and white, respectively, and who are pitted against each other by their boss. He wants Ileen to keep tabs on Rasheeda for a reason to fire her, after she has started acting moody in the workplace. However, Rasheeda is on to them both, and is more than willing to engage in mind games with them.
Director Scott R. Grumling said he was attracted to the play for many reasons, including its use of two strong female leads and its relevance in today’s political climate.
“A diverse audience is going to bring their own background and perceptions to the play,” said the 10-year Burholme resident. “Everyone is going to view what occurs on stage by filtering it through their personal experience. That’s the great thing about theater, is there’s no right or wrong answer.”
He said having people in the same room experiencing things from different points of view could open the door to conversations where people could understand those of different backgrounds.
Grumling mentioned that every character is portrayed to have their own motivations, but have flaws as well. Ryan said, “There are no good guys” in the play, saying it does not take sides on who’s right and who’s wrong.
“This play is the result of what happens if we don’t talk about things,” Grumling said.
Leah O’Hara, a Mayfair resident, plays Ileen, the woman pitted against Rasheeda. Her character tries to keep everyone happy, at the expense of not having her own leg to stand on. O’Hara said that since playing the character, she has seen many real-life “Ileens” in the world, saying the play tackles sexism as well as racism.
“We’re known as the City of Brotherly Love, and a lot of time I think we tend to forget that,” O’Hara said. “The Ileens of the world are a reminder of that. But you can also look down on her, because she’s not a strong female character. But in a lot of ways, we aren’t all strong female characters. She is a very sympathetic character.”
Grumling wanted to bring the play to Philadelphia because of its “universal” themes. He had been pitching the production to the theater for a couple of years.
“Ever since we elected Barack Obama, everyone has been saying we’re in post-racial America, but what does that even mean?” he said, saying that theme was something he wanted to explore.
The play debuted at the New Group Theatre in New York in 2015. It was written by Joel Drake Johnson, and inspired by an instance where he reported an impolite black front desk worker to her higher-ups. He received a letter in response saying she had been fired, and he wondered about the implications of his actions, and whether or not the worker had been genuinely rude or was just having a bad day.
Ryan, also a Burholme resident, wore several different hats during production, signing up just as the publicity agent for the play and eventually becoming the assistant director and stage manager.
The show will play at the Allens Lane Arts Center, at 601 W. Allens Lane, on Nov. 17, 18, 24, 25, Dec. 1 and 2 at 8 p.m., and on Nov. 19, 26 and Dec. 3 at 2 p.m.
Following the Nov. 19 showing, there will be a talkback with Grumling, the cast and community leaders.
Those on the panel include Phoebe Coles (CEO and founding partner in a family-owned marketing company, Community Marketing Concepts), the Rev. David Brown (trainer and core team member of Healing the Wounds of Racism for the United Methodist Church) and Lois Moses (an acclaimed theatrical performance artist and poet who also conducts motivational workshops).
Tickets are available by calling 215–248–0546 or online at allenslane.org and are $25 in advance or $30 at the door. ••