“As a black woman, I want to keep people comfortable,” says Steph Hickling Beckman, actor and managing artistic director at Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective. “I don’t want people to think I’m being an angry black woman, just because I’m trying to stir the pot.”
This balancing act created initial pause when Beckman read the script for Rasheeda Speaking, which opens Thursday, Sept. 1, at The BeBe Theatre. The play follows Beckman’s character, Jaclyn, who has returned to work following a brief illness. While she was away, a series of changes occurred in the office. Meetings were held without her. Her boss, Dr. Williams (Eamon Martin), is acting more awkward than usual. And her fellow co-receptionist, Ileen (Kristi DeVille), has suddenly become her boss.
“It touches on things that we don’t really know exist,” Beckman says, addressing how the play questions the notion of postracial America. It is “not the outright racism that people think you’re accusing them of when you bring up privilege.”
Privilege, Beckman notes, influenced her decision to bring on Scott Keel as the play’s director. As a black women, Beckman worried if she took on the position, it might overshadow the play. “People would hear me and just say, ‘Yes, she’s still angry. … She’s got some feelings about this.’” With Keel (a white man) at the helm, those assumptions went away. The very process, Beckman points out, is an example of privilege. “People get very upset these days when you say they’re privileged. And that comes because they don’t really understand what that privilege means. But that privilege means exactly what I describe: the privilege to never have to wonder if something happens because of the color of your skin.”
This is an issue Beckman’s character faces throughout the play. The fact that Jaclyn is left to wonder if the office has turned on her because of her race is, in and of itself, a consequence of racism. “It’s interesting how subtle it is in the play,” Beckman says, “which is pretty much the place where I think most Americans are, regardless of what race we are.”
Ironically, Keel’s own reservations about directing the production were due to the fact that he is a Caucasian male. “I asked [Beckman], ‘Why would you want that lens on a play that deals this heavily with this issue?’” he says.
Beckman saw Keel’s question as among the many attributes that made him qualified to handle the material. “He recognizes as a straight white male, [dealing with] microaggression is not part of his daily life — that he knows nothing about that,” says Beckman. “To hear him say that goes a lot further than to hear me say that. He might not experience it, but he sees it.”
The play looks to push boundaries and call attention to the subtle and quiet ways that race still impacts individuals’ daily interactions. Its aim isn’t to accuse, but to create awareness. Regardless of its intent, challenges arise. “The subject matter is so taboo,” says Keel. One consequence is the potential in alienating the audience: “You really have to make sure that [the characters] are portrayed in a way that is palpable so an audience can go, ‘OK, I can get on board with this person.’ And then, as the play goes on, if things get rougher or more uncomfortable, we’ve already identified them as people.”
Post-show discussions will occur between cast and audience members following each Friday and Saturday performance. “We find it’s a great supplement,” says Beckman. “Because the material is … really thought-provoking.” The interaction offers the audience a chance to further consider the issues that the production confronts. The talk also gives the actors a chance to share their experiences in producing the play.
“It’s really been cool, because during rehearsals we have table work,” says Beckman. “We sit around and look at the script and analyze it and talk about our characters and their intentions and motivations. … We’ve talked about our own feelings about race, about how we feel it affects us in our everyday lives … it’s brought out a lot more understanding.”
Encouraging such dialogue seems to be the greater goal behind the Different Strokes! production of Rasheeda Speaking. Keel points out that, at times, audiences create walls, distancing themselves from what is happening onstage. “People think, ‘This isn’t real life, this is larger than life, so I don’t actually have to connect with it,’” he says. With Rasheeda Speaking, Keel intends to ground the audience by making the drama “as real as humanly possible — a reflection of what we experience on a day-to-day basis so people are forced to look at that mirror and go, ‘Oh sh*t, I do that.’”
WHAT: Rasheeda Speaking, avl.mx/2vb
WHERE: BeBe Theatre, 20 Commerce St.
WHEN: Thursdays to Saturdays, Sept. 1-17, 7:30 p.m. $18 advance/$21 at the door