Cynthia Nixon, Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest Chat Racism and Working in a Female-Dominated Ensemble

News   Cynthia Nixon, Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest Chat Racism and Working in a Female-Dominated Ensemble
 
The award-winning New Group continues its 20th anniversary season Off-Broadway with the New York premiere of Joel Drake Johnson's Rasheeda Speaking, a workplace drama that puts the unspoken tensions of "post-racial" America under the magnifying glass.

The production marks Cynthia Nixon's directorial debut, at the helm of an all-star cast led by Tony winner Tonya Pinkins and Oscar winner Dianne Wiest. The trio of talented women recently opened up about racism in America, the timeliness of the play and working together in a female-led ensemble. 

Rasheeda Speaking focuses on the relationship between Ileen (Wiest) and Jaclyn (Pinkins), who have developed a real bond in the six months they've worked together at the front desk of Dr. Williams' office. Things begin to turn sour when the doctor enlists the help of one woman to dismiss the other, unleashing a chilling power struggle that lends both a critical and comical look at the unspoken racial tensions in our society.

Darren Goldstein and Tonya Pinkins
Darren Goldstein and Tonya Pinkins Photo by Monique Carboni

Pinkins (Caroline, or Change; Play On!) says that she was immediately attracted to the story and the important questions that it raises. "It's a great play about a conversation that needs to be had. It asks, 'What are the ways in which we have implied racial bias?'" Questions such as these seem all the more significant and timely considering the current hotbed of racial tensions, combined with the current celebration of Black History Month. For Pinkins, the play dares to incite a conversation that many audience members are potentially avoiding. "We talk about things that America doesn't want to talk about," she says, "about discriminatory practices that have been institutionalized and legalized and how can we begin to change if people don't want to recognize or acknowledge that it exists."

In the play, "the race card" is extremely taboo, and Pinkins explains that it is this inability to talk openly, both on and off the stage, which can feed ongoing social tensions. "Because the conversation can't be had, then you see these two characters who begin to play mind games with each other." 

The team behind Rasheeda Speaking hope that Johnson's play will provoke theatregoers to "have the conversation." "I think the theatre is the best way to transform someone," says Pinkins, "because you are actually in the room with it, you are feeling it and living it." Darren Goldstein (Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson), who plays the role of Dr. Williams, agrees with this. "That's what this play is about — incrementally, the steps we can take to make it better. If a few people walk away going, 'That's a little bit of me, and I don't like it. I'm going to change,' that's wonderful. "It's also entertainment and very funny," adds Goldstein. He is the only male character in the play and also the only man in the rehearsal room when Johnson isn't present. "I'm the only guy, and I love it. It's terrific," he says with a smile. "It's a very warm and generous cast. We have two ridiculous actresses in these roles and an amazing director." At this compliment, Dianne Wiest's ("Hannah and Her Sisters") face lights up and she nods in agreement. When asked how it feels to work in a female-led cast and creative team, Wiest answers, "There's a huge difference. Things are more gentle, more efficient, they don't go off-track…and the egos are very, very low-key." 

For Nixon, working with a predominantly female cast has been a dream. "I love them. I've always been knocked out by Tonya and Dianne as actresses," she says admiringly.  "I think our rehearsals feel very safe, which is great. They feel that they can come at me, and I’m there and can answer them and hold them." Nixon says that her first time directing is coming naturally, but that "the thing about directing is, it's like being a parent. Everybody does it differently, and no one can do every part of it perfectly." She adds that she is grateful for the guidance of New Group artistic director Scott Elliott, who is "everything you would want in a mentor."

Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest
Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest Photo by Monique Carboni

It was Elliott who introduced Johnson's script to Nixon, who "immediately loved it." "I think that Joel has a very unique and powerful voice," she says. "I think a lot of the strength of his writing comes from how keenly he observes the minutia of human interactions." Echoing her cast, Nixon agrees that the issues and questions raised in the play are current and significant. "I think he's chosen a very formidable topic," she says, "race and particularly in the workplace. You throw race into office politics, and it becomes more complicated, more touchy, more painful, more dangerous."

For Nixon, "the play is about racial prejudice but also about racial fear…I think you ignore race in America at your peril." She explains that the character of Ileen is forced to wake up to her racism, even if it isn't in a positive way. For Wiest, this was what both attracted her and frightened her about the role. "I thought, 'Could I even do this?' It's a stretch for me. It was a magnet, and terrifying," she says.

Playwright Johnson says that he, too, was "terrified" about writing these characters and exploring the undertow of racism in American society; and yet ultimately he felt compelled to write the play and examine these issues in a way that would also be comic for the audience. The premise for Rasheeda Speaking was based on a real-life experience that Johnson had with an African-American woman in the workplace.  

Opening is Feb. 11 at the New Group at Pershing Square Signature Theatre. For tickets visit thenewgroup.org or phone (212) 279-4200.

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