For some reason I’ve never quite understood, ambiguity is a key factor in much dramatic literature from the early-mid-20th century on. I’m not talking about merely the grand experimenters and stylistic iconoclasts (like Ionesco, Becket and Pirandello), but also those who tell stories in more defined terms; as if part of the exercise is pointedly leaving something for the audience to ponder and debate and define for themselves. Depending on the playwright and the play (and the period in the writer’s career, as with Pinter and Albee, although even they are more overt practitioners than the more contemporary dramatists in their wake), this can provide depth and fascination or just prove a crutch for a lack of substance. It often manifests itself in depictions of social mores and societal conventions; a character behaves in such a way as to force another character (or characters) to act uncharacteristically, a basic paradigm of daily survival gets shattered, and as the play’s characters pick up the pieces (if they do; if they can), they have to decide how they’ll redefine themselves (if they can; if they will) and the biggest question of all is usually about the catalyst character. What did s/he really intend by setting off that chain of events. What was s/he thinking? Did s/he know how one thing would lead to another or was it just a gamble?
In many, perhaps most contemporary plays that play this game (by which I mean plays of recent generations) the use of ambiguity is little more than an annoyance; but Joel Drake Johnson’s Rasheeda Speaking (superbly directed by Cynthia Nixon and featuring a crackerjack cast) is playing a far slyer game than most. We start off in the medical office of Doctor Williams (unflinchingly controlling Darren Goldstein), who is, via charm and manipulation, pressuring his longtime office employee Ileen (a sweet and mousy Dianne Wiest) to spy on her co-worker Jaclyn. The doctor seems the very poster boy for urban racism that would deny its existence as he discusses and describes the faults of the African American Jaclyn, and it is only under duress that Ileen agrees at least that Jaclyn’s behavior is not always ideal; for you see Ileen genuinely likes Jackyn.
But then Jaclyn enters (in the person of human dynamo Tonya Pinkins) and guess what, folks: she’s exactly as the doctor described her, a genuinely problematic employee. That she’s African American seems almost beside the point, except that she has that thang and that tude that exacerbate the impression. But Ileen seems genuinely unconcerned with all that and genuinely wants to get Jaclyn out of Dutch with the boss, but her efforts to help are so lacking in finesse (she’s not at all good at being surreptitious) that it doesn’t take Jaclyn long to suss out that she’s on some kind of tenuous probation.
And Jaclyn begins to change the game.
The how is what I dast not tell you, lest the game be guv away, but it’s a slow escalation, and it brings to the surface any number of manifestations of casual bigotry as it still exists in the present day. But it would be wrong to think of Jaclyn as the corrective force who puts all white attitudes in perspective. Because her motives and intentions are withheld. Just when you think you understand her as a product of society, she pulls a reversal that makes you question the legitimacy of her claim to any societal paradigm as a rationale.
By the end, she has triggered such a change in office dynamics that we have, in a sense, entered the land of Harold Pinter. Because unless you persist in being uncompromisingly literal minded (which perhaps the playwright would enjoy your being, because what better wellspring from which to confront the prejudices that hide than intractability?), there is no absolute reality. It just seems as if there is, because the play’s vocabulary is presentational. But unlike most plays employing ambiguity, Rasheeda Speaking doesn’t merely seek to engage your intellect, but (I think) to back you into a corner. Any stand you take on the story you’ve seen enacted is both right and wrong, both racist and unbiased. There’s no correct interpretation, but by getting caught in its web, the genuine issues being raised become immediate and visceral.
Which is as good a reason for ambiguity as ever I’ve encountered.
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