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|A CurtainUp Review
Seeing the world premiere of Tracey Scott Wilson's ambitious new play The Story, reminded me of Everybody's Ruby (CU Review), another cinematically staged drama seen there four years ago in which Phyllis Rashad played a newspaper woman, as she does here.
As Ruby was a historical drama set in the early 1950s, the recent scandal about an African-American New York Times reporter who manufactured many of his sources, give a torn-from-yesterday's headlines feeling to the update of the 1981 Janet Cooke scandal that became the basis of the fictionalized update Ms. Wilson wrote two years ago. Cooke, in case you don't recall, was the 26-year-old Washington Post cub reporter who won a Pulitzer that had to be turned back after it was revealed that her feature about an 8-year-old heroine addict was a figment of her imagination.
While Wilson uses many facts from Cooke's life and Loretta Greco has staged this world premiere as a gripping noirish docudrama, The Story focuses on a quite different situation -- this one revolving around the murder of a white man in a black neighborhood (somewhat reminiscent of the murder of a young inner city teacher whose father was a wealthy Manhattan executive). While it explores the particular conundrums facing African-Americans even at a time when the racial divide in the media has narrowed considerably, the quick rise and fall of Yvonne (Erika Alexander), an ambitious young reporter at a paper in an unnamed city (Newark, Philadelphia?), examines universal issues pertaining to the fourth estate: The hairline differences between truth and perception; the effect of news competing with entertainment on blurring the demarcation between reality and fiction, morality and ambition. There's also the effect of undue parental pressure to succeed that bedevils people like Yvonne -- no matter what their ethnic identity or field of endeavor.
When you first take your seat all you see is a single industrial style desk and two chairs and the backdrop emblazoned with giant letters announcing that this is the office of The Daily. But designer Robert Brill has made what looks like a bare bones production spring to bustling life that evokes the clamor and movement of a newsroom and the metropolis it covers. The backdrop turns out to be a scrim onto which a giant newsroom photo is at one point projected. The frequent scenes shift are accomplished with just a few props rolled on and off the stage; the busyness with moody lighting (by James Vermeulen), music (Robert Kaplowitz) and much overlapping dialogue which calls for close attention on the listener's part.
To set the scene, Ms. Wilson has written a prologue that shows the distraught victim's pregnant wife, Jessica Dunn (Sarah Grace Wilson), being interviewed by a detective (Michell Hurst). It seems the husband was killed as they were on their way to dinner with his wealthy parents at a restaurant in the inner city neighborhood where both had signed on to teach. The idea was to persuade their elders that this was a safe and sane thing to do. As the play moves forward it intermittently returns to Jessica, her increasingly evident pregnancy helping to establish the passing of time as well as her growing anger and bitterness. Most of the action, however, revolves around Yvonne and Jeff (Stephen Kunken), her lover and mentor at The Daily, Pat (Phyllis Rashad) the African-American editor of the Outlook section to which Yvonne has been posted and Pat's own protege and confidante Neil (Damon Gupton), who, like Yvonne, is full of ambition.
The murder of the white school teacher pretty much parallels Yvonne's arrival at The Daily, her job a combination of an impressive resume (summa cum laude graduate of Harvard, a stint at the Sorbonne, four languages!) and a push from Jeff, a rich, upper class manager at the paper who happens to be her lover. Yvonne is mad that Jeff's "push" hasn't prevented her from having to prove herself in the Outlook section covering African-American community events. What's more there's an instant hostility between her and Pat, a middle aged woman who has come up the hard way and takes pride in the strides made by African-American reporters and stories that reflect well on her people. Yvonne's relationship with Neil is equally bristly.
The what's true and honorable, what isn't issues crop up even before Yvonne's breakthrough story and Neil's equally shocking exposé blow the lid off Pat's certainties and Jeff's feelings for Yvonne. Pat reprimands Yvonne for copy that, besides being sloppy and inaccurate, editorializes too much. Yet, Pat wants the black community center features to be positive.
Unlike the Janet Cooke case which involved a fabricated human interest feature, Yvonne's big break comes through a very real and bright teen ager named Latisha (Tammi Clayton). Latisha's revelations during one of Yvonne's hated community center features turn out to be the ambitious reporter's opportunity to move into the paper's mainstream as well as promising to resolve the as yet open case of the murdered teacher.
This being a double mystery -- the mystery of what makes Yvonne tick and the much publicized murder mystery -- readers should learn the details from watching the play not from reading this review. I won't, however, be spoiling any surprises by telling you that Ms. Wilson's play is well served by Loretta Greco taut direction and the solid cast. While Ms. Rashad, who makes the conservative yet passionate editor likeable but with just enough of a bitchy edge, is the only well-known player Erica Alexander brings a canny toughness to the role of the dissembling Yvonne. Stephen Kunken plays the increasingly disenchanted lover with admirable understatement and his brief additional appearance as the murder victim aptly underscores the very different victimization to which he falls prey. Sarah Grace Wilson and Damon Gupton do good work as Jessica Dunn, the widow of the murdered man, and Neil, the African-American reporter. Though only on stage a few times, Tammi Clayton stands out as Latisha, the girl who puts Yvonne's smarts to the severest test.
Ms. Wilson realistically poses more questions than she answers, and she does so with a stylish, attention-holding script that ends on a chilling note that will leave viewers with much to talk about. A story about the real Janet Cooke, who according to Ms. Wilson was last seen working as a department store clerk in Detroit hoping to make a comeback, might have been less trendy but equally interesting. Generally speaking though if I have any quarrel with the character interactions that propel The Story , it is with the pat and predictably disaster bound romantic entanglement of Yvonne and Jeff. Still, this romantic contrivance is a minor complaint in what is otherwise a ripping good story, presented with all-around dramatic flair.
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At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
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The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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