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BWW Review: RASHEEDA SPEAKING IS A POWERFUL, ANXIETY DRIVEN RESTROSPECTIVE at OFF-CENTRAL PLAYERS

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KYM WELCH AND DEBBIE YONES ARE MAGNIFICENT THIS CAST NEEDS TO BE SEEN.

BWW Review: RASHEEDA SPEAKING IS A POWERFUL, ANXIETY DRIVEN RESTROSPECTIVE at OFF-CENTRAL PLAYERS

"How can I communicate with someone who doesn't look me in the eye?"

-Dr. Williams, Rasheeda Speaking

"Good morning, Dr. Williams office, this is Rashseeda speaking, how may I help you?"

-Jaclyn, Rasheeda Speaking

Our central characters Ileen and Jaclyn work togther a meer desk apart in a small and conservative Medical Office in Chicago. As the story opens we find out that Ileen has recently been made office manager by Dr. Williams, and over coffee and sweet rolls they discuss the days upcomings. By a watch unlike any-other Jacklyn arrives to work, finding her desk askew and walking into the room as if someone was just talking about her. After a five day leave Jacklyn returns to an office that may or may not have been turned on its head so to speak. What happens in the progressingly swift 95 minutes is nothing short of magical. The twist and turns, the wonder about what could possibly happen next, keeps you on the edge of your seat and filled with anxiety at its best. Somehow a story so real, so human, and so down-right current even in an unfortunate way makes this a piece you absolutely can't steal your eyes away from. With baited breath we hang on every word.

The Off-Central Players at Studio Grand Central in the heart of St. Petersburg makes a fine showing with their inaugural production of this Joel Drake Johnson piece. For over the course of 2-3 years brother and sister team of Ward Smith and Karen Riffe discussed the idea of opening a venue in St. Petersburg. Karen having witnessed the exceptional work Ward had done with The Heather in Tampa, was hoping the two could combine forces and find a venue in the burg. In January 2021, Ward called and said there was a what used to be Acting School already built out with Theatre seating and lighting and in an ideal location. The rest they say is history and Studio Grand Central and the home of the Off-Central Players was born. The Off-Central Players mission is, "We are a non-profit organization focused on supporting and nurturing local artists while sharing meaningful performing artistic works within our community. We will be home to some of the most thought provoking and groundbreaking performing arts programs available. As a small, intimate theater, we plan to produce projects that others simply can't or won't-providing opportunities for artist to showcase their work while enriching our audiences."

Debbie Yones as Ileen is explosive here, her moment to moment is so fine-tuned and so spot on. They say actions speak louder than words, and it's in her silence where she is most deadly. Her back and forth rapport with Jacklyn is nothing short of razor-sharp. She's the goody-goody of the office and can often be seen as an ass-kiss but at the same-time is no nonsense when it comes to office protocol. There is something interesting about Ileen a "vail threat" of something bubbling under the surface, and we just wonder how much she can take before she explodes. Imagine Francis McDormand from Fargo/Three Billboards mixed with Nomadland. Debbie is precisein every way, and you know looking away would deter your mind from something truly magical.

Kym Welch is dynamic and astounding as Jacklyn. You feel her instinct when it becomes a battle of wills/morals in an almost survival of the fittest mentality. She plays the game with the best of them but her uncanny street smarts and her masterful wit make her the le grand-fromage here. She's the Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), the Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) of our story and everyone in her path needs to back off, for she will stop at nothing to maintain her status of employment and show that no matter what the closeted bigots of the world say, she is the poo and everyone needs to take a big whiff.

Ward Smith as Dr. Williams and our subsequent Director for this masterful work is that aloof curmudgeon of a doctor in the right form of the word. Much like a Harold Abbot of Everwood, even in his corner the apprehension and mis-judgement of character speak volumes to the type of business he is running. He is in deep and needs to find a way out, and why not lay the blame on a patsy-type of character to shift blame from his own laurels of bigotry. The question remains, is Dr. Williams really like this behind closed doors, in his most personal of moments, or does something bring this out in him? Is there a Hyde to his Jekyll or is he just misunderstood?

Cinda Goeken is marvelously funny as Rose Saunders. Her timing is impeccable and her moments in the office though brief are memorable. There is a time where she is supposed to go to the waiting area, and she keeps coming back with more questions more hilarious than the last. She is great fun here.

Director Extraordinaire Ward Smith has captained a fine-tuned, well-oiled machine here. The timing and pacing are spot-on and in 95 minutes with no intermission this roller-coaster with leave you gasping from the anxiety ridden air. Hats off to other crew, the wonderful Cat D. Carter as our stage manager, and lighting design by Michael Horn worked for the stark contrast of the Medical Office in which we were all seemingly onlookers in a waiting area. The sound design and percussion by Gumbi Ortiz and Ward Smith were great for the transitional moments between scenes. Brava to all and hats off to a finely-tuned performance.

The real meat and potatoes of this tale by Joel Drake Johnson is not just the outstanding performances, but the metaphor lying deep between the lines. There is much talk in the front half of the show about "Toxins" in the air. There are plants brought into the space and adorning the outer extremities of the office, there a crystals of different sizes and colors laid amidst piles of paper work on the desk, and a fan to distribute said toxins and disperse their almost stagnant appearance. Over the course of the last few years but even farther back than that, Racism of all shapes and sizes seems to plague the air and very uncomfortably the overall worldview.

Theses so called "Toxins" in which the characters speak about in Rasheeda Speaking is just that. You see "Rasheeda" is a code-word or buzz-word for the closeted bigots of the world to discuss matters of an uncomfortable nature while in public. The question remains, "When do we as the public eye, as human beings decide to clear the air, and rid the vanity of the so-called toxins?" I tread lightly here, but as a society is there a true time to where we take a stance towards what is right and just, versus what is uncomfortably wrong and downright cruel? Gone should be the days in which code-words are used, gone should be the days in which we hide in our insecurities. Instead why not usher in the day where we all collectively decide to understand that "human-condition" is grounded in its root word. That we all are unequivocally Human and what we all collectively are understood and recognized as, is PEOPLE.

Rasheeda Speaking by Joel Drake Johnson is on-stage at Studio Grand Central, 2260 1st Ave. South in St. Petersburg. Please call (727) 202-7019 or visit studiograndcentral.com for tickets and information. Onstage now till September 19th, and you would be remiss if you missed this truly magical, powerful, and downright honest Inaugural Production. In Field of Dreams it was said, "If you build it, they will come!..." Ward Smith and the fine-folks of the Off-Central Players has solidified a staple that is sure to be around for many years to come, welcome and "Thank you for being a friend."

Photo Credit: Jim Swallow


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