Feature This

The Public Theater displays a new byline; the Atlantic Theater tries to stir up old paranoias

I call them the YGBs. Seemingly out of nowhere, in the past few years, the theater's received a shoal of African American women playwrights who are young, gifted, and utterly unafraid. They may not do everything right, but their plays are exciting because they do the big thing right, which is to grab for the essence of a drama without worrying about who will or won't approve of its characters. Kirsten Childs, Kia Corthron, and Lynn Nottage are among those who come to mind. To these glorious granddaughters of Hansberry can now be added, with pleasure, the name of Tracey Scott Wilson. Her lively, sharp-witted play The Story likewise doesn't get everything right, but it introduces a writer whose confrontational priorities are all in the right place. Though touching on enough issues to fill several didactic volumes, Wilson puts her primary focus on people rather than doctrines. As a result, The Story's effect, unlike that of many plays containing violence, is repercussive rather than merely percussive: It ends abruptly and shockingly, leaving you to write its third act, the events of which are painfully easy to imagine.

The setting is a big-city newspaper office. The heroine, a cub reporter with a glittery résumé and huge ambitions, chafes at being stuck in the anodyne, Afrocentric "Outlook" section, where the tough-minded boss lady nitpicks at her stories. The city has been electrified by the murder, in a ghetto neighborhood, of a rich young white man who worked there as a schoolteacher. The reporter, while on a different assignment, stumbles across an ultra-intelligent high school girl who claims to be a gangbanger with the inside scoop on the case. The heroine sees this as her ticket into the city room, where a young white male editor eggs her on, for reasons of his own. Think Jayson Blair, think Janet Cooke. Wilson's story has elements of all the falsifications and exposures that have dogged the media, but isn't exactly like any of them. She tells it quickly and incisively, in a staccato rhythm (neatly captured in Loretta Greco's smart, speedy production) worthy of classic newsroom plays like The Front Page. Until the end, she juggles elegantly the story's social-issue resonance—the urban politics of race, crime, and truth in reporting—against the personal reality of one young woman's struggle for a place in life, and its dreadful outcome.

While handling that aspect of the piece with powerful assurance, Wilson shows a newcomer's uncertainty of touch in other respects. An ingenious device, having multiple scenes played out simultaneously, is sometimes carried to schematic predictability. Two later scenes—one involving the murdered man's widow and one between the reporter and the young city editor—are weakly imagined. And sometimes Wilson errs by seeing things all too literally in black and white: What urban newspaper with a multi-ethnic readership has a section devoted solely to African Americans?

Rashad and Alexander in The Story: Hot off the press
photo: Michal Daniel
Rashad and Alexander in The Story: Hot off the press

Details

The Story
By Tracey Scott Wilson
Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
212.239.6200

Frame 312
By Keith Reddin
Atlantic Theater
336 West 20th Street
212.239.6200

But these are smaller failings, of a kind writers get past with experience. The salient fact is that Wilson has written a solid, exciting play, with real links to the outside world and with affecting moral ramifications. Greco's production supports her with effective design work and strong, lucid acting. Erika Alexander, as the heroine, bubbles fiercely and movingly under a mask of composure. Phylicia Rashad and Stephen Kunken, as the rival editors, find just the right blend of aggrieved good nature and desperate urgency. And Tammi Clayton, as the story's unreliable source, moves from defiant to impish to terrorized with an easy confidence paralleling the author's. The Story is not the great play that will redeem this unending thud of a season, but it is genuine work, by a genuine young talent determined to make the theater matter to us. And if that doesn't equal hope, then I'm a lying journalist, so call in the ombudsman.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Keith Reddin's Frame 312, because I like Reddin, who's written a long series of teasing, thought-provoking plays that never quite reach fruition. This one, which like The Story deals with journalistic gamesmanship, focuses on the paranoia surrounding JFK's assassination, specifically on the "second assassin" theory and alleged manipulation of the Zapruder film. At the same time, Reddin, like Wilson, is more interested in the people of his story than with the issues it raises. He uses the assassination's unsettled questions as a kind of paranoid gravy to liven up a fairly standard slice of family beefing. Much of the latter is well captured; some of the paranoia is good suspense-flick fun—or would be if Karen Kohlhaas's production didn't push the actors into every kind of overstatement and indicating. She may have felt the need to overheat scenes this way because she realized the script's essential problem: that the family story doesn't reflect the assassination in any meaningful way. Still, it would look better with less frenzied treatment. Elizabeth Hanly Rice and Greg Stuhr come through reasonably well, and the directorial heavy hand can't hamper old pros like Mary Beth Peil and Larry Bryggman. But the script's dramaturgic flaw, like the question of Oswald's guilt, just won't disappear.

 
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