Rasheeda Speaking and West Bank Café

Master class in a doctor's office. Photo by Monique Carboni.
There is a pre-Obama retro vibe to Rasheeda Speaking by Joel Drake Johnson. Timid, white Ileen, played by Dianne Wiest, is asked to spy on and list the infractions, like arriving late to work, of her black co-worker, Jaclyn, played by Tonya Pinkins, building a case for human resources to fire her. Jaclyn has just taken time off work after having an allergic reaction to the Xerox machine that sits next to her desk.

Dr. Williams (delightfully unctuous Darren Goldstein) condescends and offends both women, including speaking with Jaclyn in jocular black dialect. He flatters Ileen and rewards her with the title “office manager.” The employees are obliged to flatter him. He loves for Ileen to tell him, “I love my job. I love working for you.” To Jaclyn, he asks, “Do you think I’m fat?” She offers him donuts and gives him a Hallmark card in which she has written, “You are not fat.”  

The windowless Chicago doctor’s office (marvelous set by Allen Moyer, fluorescent lighting by Jennifer Tipton) is decorated with wilting philodendrons and a Georgia O’Keeffe flower poster from the Chicago Art Institute. It’s a chillingly lifelike set for a ninety-minute master class in acting, each moment coached with humor and infinite finesse by first-time director Cynthia Nixon.

Ileen feels terrible about what she has become. Another brilliant actress, Patricia Conolly, plays Rose, a delicate elderly patient. Because she is clueless, her racial epitaphs (“It’s like they’re paying us back for slavery”) float past unacknowledged. Jaclyn is indeed in a toxic environment. You can probably guess which one of them winds up leaving.

Generous prix fixe at West Bank Café

Established in 1978, West Bank Café has a dedicated following and is difficult to book before or after a play. The reason is the food, and for instance, kale salad—now on every menu across town—is ingenious here, mixed with grilled octopus, radishes, and smoked salted almonds. A 3-course prix fixe for $35 gives as a main course salmon or chicken with abundant vegetables. Entrees include rainbow trout piccata and black linguini with rock shrimp, and desserts, hot chocolate bread pudding with vanilla ice-cream and caramel. The cocktail menu sounds delectable and wine by the glass is good value.

West Bank Café has a downstairs space, the Laurie Beechman Theatre, where many great performers have done shows, including, as recently as 2013, Joan Rivers.

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