Rasheeda Speaks!

Rasheeda Speaking

Two plays to delight you.

Cynthia Nixon led her actors in Rasheeda Speaking, her directing debut, with nuance and hilarity. The play centers around three main characters: an office manager named Ilene (Dianne Wiest), a medical secretary named Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins) and their boss Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein). The story begins with Dr. Williams enlisting newly promoted Ilene to keep tabs on any and every potential wrongdoing by Jaclyn, as he wants to fire her. Ilene is as strong as a wet noodle and you wonder how he thinks that she is the right person for this task. Jaclyn is onto them and manipulates the situation to expose the racist motivations. Ms. Pinkins’s Jaclyn is exacting in her decisions and layered in her motives, and had, as well as the rest of the cast, wonderful comic timing. Her speech about Rasheeda was the heart of the play.


Dr. Williams went to the trouble of digging for reasons to fire Jaclyn because he didn’t want anyone accusing him of wrongful termination, as Jaclyn is African-American. He denies that is the motivation, although as he continues to speak the audience is clear that he is, in fact, a racist. Throughout the play he uses his race and gender privilege to get what he wants, as he’s quite comfortable with that the power dynamic. When Ilene threatens to quite because she’s crumbling under the stress, Dr. Williams threatens to “make sure she doesn’t get a job after this one.”


At the beginning of the play you have room to wonder about Jaclyn: Is she a good employee and Dr. Williams is completely in the wrong, or is she a troubling employee judged harshly through Dr. Williams’ racist lens? Jaclyn is set up to be a bit eccentric. When she comes into the office after being away and her main concern is the health of the plants. She then pulls out crystals and a special fan, because she accuses the office of being infested with toxins. Despite her quirks and stories about her crazy neighbors, it quickly becomes clear that beyond a reasonable doubt, the doctor is motivated to fire Jaclyn, a productive employee, because he does not want to work with a woman of color.


Now what? The situation worsens and Ilene eventually brings a gun to her last day of work because she’s terrified by the racist predictions from her husband and sons, who she says chime in nightly with their interpretation of the office events. Dr. Williams is flummoxed and Jaclyn makes brilliant maneuvers with Human Resources so that she ends up with a promotion. The situation isn’t completely resolved, it just sort of ends. I was hoping to see these characters come to a resolution, but instead was left wondering if that was even possible and maybe that was the point.


Rasheeda Speaking has now finished the run at The New Group, but keep your eyes and ears peeled for future incarnations.



Home in Her Heart: Love in the 1930s


Recently, on one of the best small stages in NYC, Stage Left Studio, there was a wonderful play about lesbian love beyond the color divide of the 1930s. I recently got to hear from the writer/actor Margaret Morrison and actor Ava Jenkins about their experience creating Home in Her Heart.


Ava Jenkins and Margaret Morrison
Ava Jenkins and Margaret Morrison

Margaret, what was your inspiration for Home in Her Heart?


Home In Her Heart started from my desire to see on stage what I had never seen before: strong, passionate women who fall in love despite segregation and must grapple with living inside the 1930s lesbian closet. Home In Her Heart is a love story between Claire Hicks, an African-American jazz pianist, and her lover, white drag-king Jimmie LeRoy, who plies the boards in their nightclub act as a tap dancing male-impersonator. The play begins in 1939 London, just as Americans have been ordered out to escape the impending outbreak of World War II. As Jimmie (played by me) and Claire (played by Ava Jenkins) pack to leave, they confront challenge of living in the U.S. under Jim Crow segregation. As a playwright, I am interested in how power structures play out between a black woman and a white woman. Their love affair is threatened from the inside because Jimmie has not recognized her own white privilege and racist assumptions and Claire has not fully accepted how her love of a woman contradicts her own politics of respectability and fuels an internalized homophobia.


What kind of research did you do for the play?


MM: I’ve been researching tap dancers, women jazz artists, and male impersonators for years. All that great Vaudeville, jazz, and queer history, along with black feminist writings influenced the play. Ava, what has it been like for you portraying Claire Hicks, and what kind of research did you do to bring her to the stage?


Ava Jenkins: Portraying Claire Hicks has been a delight for me.  She is intelligent, talented, accomplished, outspoken, and very ambitious.  It was easy for me to fall in love with her character.  What I love most about playing Claire is how similar her life is to my own.  I have learned a lot about who she is by allowing her character to show me who I am.  Claire had taught, and still is teaching me, about myself.  It is a wonderful experience.


During rehearsals, I wouldn’t allow Ava to step on the stage.  I would come ready to let Claire’s character take over.  Her voice, her mannerisms, her emotions, how she spoke, even down to how she would interact with Jimmie (played by Margaret Morrison).  I prepared to portray Claire by opening myself up to feel who she is, and what she is going through.  I didn’t want to “act” the part, I wanted to “feel” the part, and in doing so, I was free to explore every aspect of Claire’s life, good and bad, in hopes of capturing all of who she is as a black woman, as a jazz pianist, as an intellectual, and as a closeted lesbian in love with a white woman.


Claire is a very talented, music conservatory trained pianist who loves music just as much as she loves to breathe.  She takes pride in who and what she is, and it shows through her music.  She can’t imagine herself being anything other than a pianist.  She knows that it was through the help and sacrifices of her mother, and her community that allowed her to have the opportunity to study piano.  One thing I know from experience is that the black community is an extension of your immediate family.  They look out for you, they encourage you, they help to raise you, and they invest in your future.  Claire’s connection to her family and community is very strong, mainly because they helped to make her what she is…a skilled and talented pianist.  In my mind, the only way Claire knows how to repay her mother, her community, and everyone for their help and investment in her achievements is to be successful in her profession.  Claire understands that her success is their success.  She wants to make them proud of who she’s become; of who they’ve helped her become.  Because of her success, and all that it took for her to be a success, Claire desires to gain the respect that she feels she deserves.  For me, as a black woman who has studied long and hard to hone her craft, I want people to respect me for who I am, what I do, and how I do it.  Not just because I do it well, but because I earned it.  I believe it’s the same for Claire.  She has, in many ways, earned the right to be respected for doing what she does best…play the piano.


My experience as a contemporary black woman allowed me to realize that portraying Claire just seems natural.  Though some things have changed since the Jim Crow era, as we know it, in some respects, they are still the same.  There are some people who give me negative looks just because of the color of my skin.  It doesn’t matter that I am educated, talented and articulate because there are some who have a preconceived notion of who and what I am.  I am sensitive to Claire’s emotion, and her reality.  They are much my own.  I have done a lot of reading about, and have been influenced by people who lived in that era.  Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie, and the like.  In reading and studying about their lives, I was able to get a better understanding of what it was like for a black, female musician trying to make it in this world with all the odds against them.  Understanding their lives, their struggles, their defeats, and their victories allowed me to be more in tune with Claire’s character.


MM: Ava, do find Claire believable? As a white playwright, I was concerned about creating a complex, three-dimensional African-American character.


AJ: I find Claire to be very believable.  By the end of the play, Claire has had time to think about her future in two different ways…going back home to her mother and living her life to please others, or going back home with the woman she loves and living her life to please herself.  She had thought about what she should do to protect her family form shame and disgrace, and is willing to act upon it.  She doesn’t have a perfect plan or solution, but that is what makes her believable.  She decides to throw caution to the wind and just do what feels right for her.

In order for me to be able to portray Claire’s conflicting sides, I just have to look at my own life.  I allow myself to re-live my personal conflicting experience through Claire’s character.  I open myself up to feel vulnerable, exposed, scared, doubtful, anxious, excited, hopeful, relieved and unburdened, all at the same time.  It is an uneasy feeling because there is no turning back once the door to all those emotions are opened during a performance.  But, it helps me, as the actor, balance the conflicting sides of Claire’s character, and the acceptance of herself and her situation.

MM: What’s challenging about playing Claire?

AJ:  The most challenging thing about portraying Claire is actually having to act more “ladylike.”  Her walk, the way she sits, even her soft gestures toward Jimmie are all a challenge.  Those are far from the norm for me, so I try to do it better in each performance.

MM: That’s pretty funny, because Jimmie is the butch one in the relationship—and a male impersonator—and I had to work really hard to embody Jimmie’s easy masculinity. She’s also confronting the end of her career, losing the love of her life, and keeps on thinking she and Claire can side-step Jim Crow. She’s on an emotional roller coaster and sometimes I am too as I prep to go on stage.

AJ:  Though Claire is quick to challenge Jimmie, and not afraid to speak her mind, I find it very delightful that she is the level-headed peacemaker of the two.  Claire is Jimmie’s opposite, yet in a sense, her equal, which is why, I think, Jimmie loves her.


What has been the audience response been like?

AJ: The audience responses have been great.  Everyone that I have had an opportunity to speak to who has seen the play has said how much they enjoyed the intimate connection between Jimmie and Claire, and how they felt the emotional struggle that both women were going through.  One audience member described the lives of Jimmie and Claire as a “beautiful sadness,” which I thought was a most eloquent description.


What are your future goals for the project?

MM: Right now we’re planning on adding some extra shows in June for Gay Pride Month. My dream in the future is to bring the play to theater festivals in other cities and I would love to perform in colleges, where Ava and I could lead acting or tap dance workshops or engage audiences in conversations about race, gender and sexuality.


Home in Her Heart is directed by Cheryl King.