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First Nighter: Joel Drake Johnson's Sly Rasheeda Speaking, Craig muMs Grant's Paradox of the Urban Cliché

02/11/2015 06:02 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

Joel Drake Johnson is a sly one. At first, his Rasheeda Speaking -- directed by Cynthia Nixon with her own sly touch in a very impressive directing debut -- looks as if it's going to be a straightforward office comedy. But the play -- at the New Group's current Signature Center base -- slowly transforms into something much deeper: an unflinching delve into entrenched racial prejudice.

Ileen (Dianne Wiest) and Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins), who sometimes agrees to be addressed as Jackie and sometimes doesn't, are co-workers in the office where self-impressed Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein) is the mucky-muck. (Allen Moyer has designed the perfectly convincing reception area, replete with the plants Jaclyn brings in to counter the toxins she maintains fester the air.)

As proceedings get underway, Ileen and Dr. Williams are expecting the early office hours return of Jaclyn after she's been out fighting a cold for five days. The good (maybe not so good) doctor has concluded that he can no longer tolerate Jaclyn's abrupt office manner and is enlisting Ileen to take notes on any unwanted behavior so he can present evidence to the HR staff as necessary substantiation.

Reluctant at first, Ileen -- a married woman who has a crush on her boss and has just been named office manager by him -- agrees to the subterfuge, as Jaclyn arrives. That's when one of the subtlest cat-and-mouse games ever to unfold on a stage commences.

Though Ileen, at her messy desk for eight years, and Jaclyn, who's been at her tidy desk for six months, have been friendly, the situation changes as Jaclyn fast notices that she's not only being watched but also noted down. Without stating it outright but pointedly aware her job is on the line, she starts taunting Ileen, and Dr. Williams as well, while consistently denying her strategy.

Johnson's mounting cleverness as Jaclyn baits Ileen and Dr. Williams -- while patient Rose (Patricia Conolly) occasionally drops in to utter veiled racist remarks -- is his exposing black-white biases that many today would contend have long since been laid to rest. It's not surprising that before too much spirited, not to say, mean-spirited, confrontations go by, the blunt comment "I am not a racist" is heard.

That's not a reality that stands up, and it's what makes Rasheeda Speaking so painful to watch even as it's minute-by-charged-minute compelling. When at one point, Jaclyn mentions young black men being shot in the back (a line perhaps introduced since the Rivendell Theatre Ensemble's Chicago production?), the work's cogency is unmistakable. The need for more plays like this one is harshly asserted.

Watching four characters behave according to their supposed overcome intolerance is the stuff of Johnson's dramedy. One of the most difficult Rasheeda Speaking aspects for the spectator is watching four characters react as they do. While certainly each of them -- Ileen and Jaclyn foremost -- is right about what the other is thinking while adamantly denying what they're thinking, the denials and ploys to disguise real attitudes (or Attitudes with a capital "A") become increasingly damaging.

Among Johnson's more impressive achievements is couched in his title. It's too cunning to be explained here, but it hits hard at the continuing, if regularly dismissed, sense of white superiority. It also provides a terrific laugh line at the end of the penultimate scene and serves as proof that the playwright maintains his ability to be funny even as he packs a potent solar plexus punch.

Because Johnson's script is so meticulously nuanced, nuanced performing of it is obligatory. All four actors amply supply what's demanded. Wiest -- who reaps an early laugh for the way in which she delivers the line "I love my job" -- is her usual masterful self as Ileen gradually implodes. So is Pinkins, who meets the is-she-lying-or-isn't-she? challenge as if confidently balancing on a tightrope. As transparent, self-impressed Dr. Williams, Goldstein scores and in her brief appearances, Conolly smoothly plays her racial insults.

Other nuances on display include Toni-Leslie James's costumes and a couple of wigs (nobody credited) that provide for one of the most devastating comments on white thinking before final fade-out.

Any number of playwright have addressed these ingrained problems over the years, but none has done it with the seemingly poker face that Johnson has. He's written a must-see play that sneaks up and grabs the throat. It's strongly recommended to listen closely to Johnson speaking.
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Whether lyrics qualify as poetry continues to be asked, and so for the last three or four decades the question has been lodged at rap. The easy answers are: some lyrics are poetry, and that includes rap. Some rap artists have a more poetic bent than others, and Craig muMs Grant is one who has the gift.

Recently, his knack was on display in the one-man The Sucker Emcee, in which he appeared. Now it's present in Paradox of the Urban Cliché, the four-actor piece that's part of the Poetic License: Subconscious: Festival at The Wild Project.

It may be that no poetry authority would consider the Paradox of the Urban Cliché title genuine poetry, but much of the language blared and blasted by the four actors during the play's 90 minutes is just that, as directly pungently by Reginald L. Davis.

Ceez (Jaime Lincoln Smith) is arrested by Authority (Morgan James Nichols) for reasons playwright Grant keeps obscure for some attenuated time. What he fills in by way of flashbacks are Ceez's activities as a dice-savvy ("bones" is the vernacular) flim-flam man as well as Ceez's interactions with the daughter he calls Smiles (Eboni Flowers), despite her disliking the nickname.

It's the exchanges between Ceez and Smiles and some of those with a character called Dice Dude (W. Tré Davis, doubling as Agents Authority) that rise to poetic edge and sustain the heat of this somber look at contemporary Harlem. (David Palmer's video design, added to by Paul DePoo III's sparse set, also enhance the fiery goings-on).

Authority's grilling occupies at least half of the action, and it's troublesome. The man's pretentious outpourings as he duns Ceez undercut the work's effectiveness, particularly because he's fulminating while the audience has little clue to what he's getting at. Ceez doesn't seem to know, either, although all becomes clear during the final minutes, a explosive sound (Julian Evens) and light (Derek Miller) revelation that may arrive too late for some observers.

The cast can't be held responsible for what goes wrong in the script. They can be held responsible for so much of what goes right. They handle the inflammatory language with great authority.