Watch Asè below.
York Walker’s 18-minute play, a broad and brutal satire of workplace insensitivity, is the first piece in a series called Consequences, a joint project of Harlem9, Harlem Stage, and the Lucille Lortel Theater.
Terri (Karen Obilom) has complained about her boss’s racially insensitive remark. Under pressure from the CEO of the company, Terri’s boss Karen (Wendy Rosoff) gathers her staff on Zoom to meet with a consultant, Dr. Amethyst Wright, Emeritus (Chandra Lee Breslow.) Karen insists that she was just making an “innocent joke,” and Dr. Wright in a roundabout way largely supports her rather than Terri.
The play is from Terri’s point of view, and she is the only character who is not a comic exaggeration, The least exaggerated is the Black intern Clint (Justin Sams), who is Terri’s clear-eyed ally; they privately share bemused reactions (cleverly depicted as silent subtitles.) But even he also spends the entire meeting eating and drinking, which is somehow the funniest bit in the play. Next in order of exaggeration, Bonnie (Jenny Mercein), an overwhelmed working mother (we see her kid bouncing up and down on the bed behind her) given to bouts of crying, and a target of the playwright’s mean-spirited fart jokes..
The playwright’s lampooning of Karen and especially Dr. Wright is venomous. Walker is spot-on in reproducing the corporate-speak used by corporate managers — “I’m hoping we can put this all behind us” — as well as the language of consultants. The title, Asè, is a word that Dr. Wright calls a “traditional affirmation from the country of Africa,” and then makes the office workers say the word in affirmation over and over again — a lesson in “recognizing other cultures have value and then casually using them in your everyday vernacular to show a sense of inclusivity.”
This would be more amusing if Dr. Wright wasn’t quite so clownish; her saying “country of Africa” is a faux pas that a professional racial sensitivity consultant is unlikely to make, but it’s the least of it. She calls everybody brother and sister, hums, shouts and hops around in lame facsimile of a Black church service or African ritual, all while we are clearly meant to see she’s actually a white woman masquerading as Black. This is the only character that director Zhailon Levingston turns into an unmitigated caricature. All the other actors create plausible characters, even Karen.
The use of the name Karen for the boss is no coincidence; the name is commonly used these days as a generic appellation for white women who abuse their privilege, especially in racist accusations against innocent Black people. This is subtle compared to having Karen choose as her Zoom backdrop posters of Martin Luther King Jr and Barack Obama. If that’s a cringeworthy choice we can imagine from a clueless character, the playwright also makes Karen a Trump supporter. I understand this may be the playwright’s effort to make racial tone-deafness emblematic of the Trump era, but it strikes me as a step too far. It gives much of the likely audience for this play too easy an out: “That could never be me.”