Rivendell Theatre Ensemble. By Joel Drake Johnson. Dir. Sandy Shinner. With Ora Jones, Tara Mallen, Eric Slater. 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Aeneas Sagar Hemphill
At a doctor's office, a young physician (Eric Slater) plots with his white receptionist Ileen (Tara Mallen) to oust her black coworker Jaclyn (Ora Jones) in Joel Drake Johnson's new work exploring discourse in "post-racial" America. Beginning with the hatching of the plan, the play initially sets us up to be the skeptic. The physician is the shining image of geniality, and Ileen gives Jaclyn some benefit of the doubt. Our first impression of Jaclyn, meanwhile, is her five-day absence and the doctor's criticisms: attitude problems and an inability to be a "team player." However, it becomes increasingly apparent that these complaints mask a familiar prejudice. Once Jaclyn enters and Ileen struggles to implement the plan, she finds herself in a minefield of misunderstandings, misconceptions and manipulation. Jaclyn uses the office environment to her advantage, strategically altering her job performance and demeanor in order to turn the tables.
The setup is promising, but workplace tension and passive aggression can only take you so far. While we see Jaclyn constantly shifting her tactics, the other characters don't put up much resistance. The stakes are defined at the start but never escalate. This is more an issue of storytelling than performance. Jones is captivating as Jaclyn, Mallen crafts a sympathetic character with earnestness and sweetness, and Slater's doc beams with affability but never crosses into caricature. The subtle tensions of the work environment can be felt, and those moments when all three characters are together are especially amusing. By the end, one can see that some layers have been stripped away. There's some surprise in how Ileen manifests her paranoia, and how Jaclyn's belief in toxins in the air and the powers of crystals—initially an intriguing character quirk—becomes a symbol for the office dynamic. But the play could use some more bite. Johnson manages to remove the agency from the oppressors—an irony that may function better conceptually than dramatically.
There is some forward motion in Jaclyn's wringing the prejudice out of her coworkers, and this does reflect the theme—that racism is no less violent today despite being veiled in innuendo and politeness. But most will get that at the outset; on its own, it doesn't make for the most satisfying resolution.