History has a funny way of repeating itself. In 1981, Janet Cooke, a black reporter at The Washington Post, received and then was forced to return the Pulitzer Prize for a mostly fabricated article about an 8-year-old heroin addict. This year, The New York Times was rocked with scandal when another black reporter, Jayson Blair, came under public fire for inventing facts in many of his own stories.
Similar subject matter fuels Tracey Scott Wilson's play The Story, which was completed a couple of years ago, but is only now opening at the Public Theater's Anspacher Theater. Much of the play is interesting, but in the wake of the real-world events Blair set in motion, the play's edges don't seem as sharp, its insights not quite so cutting.
Regardless, The Story has plenty to say, and makes those now-familiar points with a fair amount of style and flair. While the brisk direction of Loretta Greco is vital to the piece (which often looks, sounds, and feels as bustling as a newsroom), it's Wilson's writing style that really defines the character of the play. Her conversations frequently overlap, sometimes to the point of having three separate scenes happening more or less simultaneously.
This allows for one idea or truth (or perhaps half-truth) to pass through many different hands, enabling the audience to see issues from multiple perspectives. And if Wilson becomes too reliant on this device at the expense of keeping the style of her storytelling fresh, it always relates to the story, which is as much about perception of the truth as it is uncovering what the truth actually is. Sometimes, Wilson argues, there's very little difference between the two.
Presenting another side to the news is the purpose of the Outlook department at the Boston newspaper The Daily. New reporter Yvonne has been hired to join the department to better present Boston's African-American community in a more positive light. But under socially conscious editor Pat (Phylicia Rashad), Yvonne grows wearing of interviewing the movers and shakes of the city's community centers and soon discovers the story that could make or break her career: an intelligent black girl named Latisha (Tammi Clayton), apparently a member of a secret gang that accepts responsibility for the recent murder of a white inner-city school teacher.
Whether Yvonne should run with the story, and what the consequences of her eventual choices are, form the foundation of The Story's often-intriguing plot. But the play is much more concerned with examining the racial attitudes between the black and white reporters at The Daily, and the tacit racism practiced by both groups. How much were Yvonne's employers willing to overlook her qualifications (or lack thereof) when hiring her and what role did affirmative action, explicitly stated or not, play?
As with the Times's Blair situation, there are no easy answers. And to the final, haunting image depicting the ultimate price for deceit and good intentions gone awry, Wilson keeps these questions at the forefront of the audience's mind. But she falters a bit in her creation of Yvonne; she's a bit too lofty, her goals and methods detailed in too grandiose a fashion to be thoroughly believable. Wilson must keep Yvonne's personal and professional background obscured for plot purposes, but her solution of reflecting this through Yvonne's speech style is not particularly effective; it renders Yvonne as more a symbolic figure than an actual character.
That Alexander is not able to rise above this is another problem; she always seems to tower above the characters, while a more grounded portrayal would better center the play. None of the other actors has this problem: Rashad's combination of concern and fiery responsibility is just right for the world-weary Pat; Damon Gupton's Neil, Yvonne's foremost competitor and critic - of both her personal and professional life - is harsh yet correct; and Kunken, Clayton, and Sarah Grace Wilson (as the wife of the murdered teacher) all handle their roles well. Michelle Hurst, Kalimi Baxter, and Susan Kalechi Watson have a great deal to do as the show's ensemble, and round out the cast nicely.
The stark scenic design (by Robert Brill), costumes (Emilio Sosa), and lighting (beautifully designed by James Vermeulen) contribute as much to the play's atmosphere as the performances, but prove similarly inconsequential in the end. As good as much of The Story is, it can't quite compete with the real-world events that prove more harrowing - and exciting - than the fictional ones Wilson has devised.
The Public Theater