THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Joel Drake Johnson discusses Rasheeda Speaking
Rasheeda Speaking is a play that has caused quite a stir in Chicago and New York, dividing audiences and critics as they come to terms with its dissection of race, culture, class and office politics in modern America. Now it's coming to London. The American spoke to playwright Joel Drake Johnson.
First published in the March-April 2018 edition of The American magazine
With its various layers of discord, including race and class, how does the story of Rasheeda Speaking relate to modern America?
I think it's about how white Americans treat black Americans, and the huge gap between them. The inability of white people to trust blacks. And of course it's gone the other way round too. I wrote the play after I went to a doctor. The woman who was waiting on me was black, and she was very rude. She got me very upset – I was already upset about what I was there for – so I called the hospital after I left and the doctor said 'Oh, we've been having problems with her, I think I'm going to have to let her go.' I said, I thought you could just talk to her, I didn't mean for her to lose her job, she was also very busy… Anyway, that's where the idea came from. At first I was going to write about a gay man who maligns a black woman, then I read an article by a black actress who said that she likes doing black plays because there are no good roles for black women by white authors. So I decided to make this the story of the black woman – Jaclyn. It came to me fast, after I'd written the first scene. I knew exactly how I wanted the structure to be, and how she was going to grow and change as the play went on, and how it also changed the white friend she works right next to.
You worked as a teacher in Chicago – did that affect the story of the play?
I taught for about 30 years, mostly theater and play writing, then I decided to retire early to see if I could make a life for myself as a playwright. I had some black kids in my classes and sometimes this play is me looking at myself and asking, how am I supposed to be with black people? I get along with black people and I have black friends, but in the classroom it made me think. I've just written a new play about a black student who wants to be in an advanced English class but the teacher won't let him in because he doesn't think he qualifies. When we did Rasheeda Speaking in New York, about half the audience were black, and half white, and we'd have discussions afterward – they were so fabulous. It really got people discussing the situation.
It's a serious topic, but there's humor in the play too.
Yeah, I actually think the play is really funny – but in a scary sort of way. It feels real to me when I watch it, and I think it did to the actors too.
Now it's coming to London, with a British cast, although Tanya Moodie who plays Jaclyn, was born and raised in Canada. Are you looking forward to coming over to see your play on the London stage? And have you made any changes to the play?
No changes, but they haven't started rehearsals yet – I'm the writer, not the actor who has to say the lines, but I'll be happy to contribute. And I'm looking forward to coming back.
What do you get up to when you visit the UK?
I've been there three times, and I love London, it has the best theater scene. And the rest of England too – I'm going to take some time and visit some new places, and revisit favorite places too. I love the Brontës, so I went to Haworth where they lived, and Bath and Edinburgh, and I went to Virginia Woolf's house way in the country in Sussex – I'm a big fan of hers so that was one of the great moments. I'm trying to figure out who to go see next! I'm also going to go to Burwell in Cambridgeshire – my mom was a Burwell and we think that's where her family came from.
Is there something that you would like audiences to take away from Rasheeda Speaking?
Just for white people to think about how they interact with black people, and vice versa – is their communication all that it should be? Is there a way that we can do more? The stuff that's happening in the States makes me think a lot about how to engage with black people so I really know them. Which in itself sounds weird – does it make me sound racist? Sometimes I don't really know what to do!
Joel's not alone there. Rasheeda Speaking has been produced in Chicago and New York and toured across the US, and it will be fascinating to see what London audiences make of such a timely play.
Rasheeda Speaking is at Trafalgar Studios 2, London from April 18 to May 12, 2018.
Box office 0844 871 7632, www.atgtickets.com