Theater review: `The Story’

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The cast of SF Playhouse’s taut drama The Story includes, from left, Craig Marker, Ryan Peters, Kathryn Tkel and Halili Knox. Photos by Zabrina Tipton

 

Racial politics, lies, ambition and the rest of `The Story’
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Writing about race it’s hard to do more than signify: this person is this color, therefore he or she must feel this way. The depth of real life, the complications of the actual people beneath the skin color is difficult to convey if you’re trying to relate plot points and especially if you’re trying to make a point.

One of the reasons Tracey Scott Wilson’s 2003 drama The Story is so satisfying is that she sets off a dramatic bomb, and just as we reach detonation, the play is over.

One of the key elements of good play writing is knowing when you’ve rattled your audience enough and it’s time to step away.

A co-production of the SF Playhouse and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, The Story is a mere 75 minutes long, but playwright Wilson (currently represented in New York with the well-received The Good Negro) crams decades of civil rights action, unrest and unease into a play that also offers insight into why newspapers were in trouble long before the current economic crisis had doomed them to certain extinction.

Director Margo Hall knows that speed is of the essence here, and not a moment is wasted in the telling of Wilson’s tale, which is inspired by the story of Janet Cooke, a Washington Post writer in the early ’80s who won a Pulitzer Prize for a story she had, in large part, fabricated.

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Wilson wants to know why an intelligent, ambitious woman like Cooke, here known as Yvonne Robinson (Ryan Peters) would pile lie up on lie in building a career in print journalism. Could it be that as a black woman, she felt she had to do whatever it took to convince people she was a viable reporter worthy of covering stories beyond the opening of a new community center in a primarily black neighborhood?

Or could it be the woman, after years of living her lies, could barely distinguish reality from the falsehoods?

Whatever, Wilson doesn’t offer any conclusions or pop psychology analysis. What she does is pile on the complications.

Yvonne is the new kid at a large metropolitan newspaper called The Daily. She’s aiming for the Metro department, where her blueblood boyfriend (Craig Marker) presides as editor. Instead, she’s relegated to the Outlook section, a community-minded department looking for positive stories to tell in the African-American community. The embittered Outlook editor, Pat (Halili Knox), has fought long and hard to integrate the newspaper to her liking. Her star reporter, Neil (Dwight Huntsman), takes an instant dislike to Yvonne, to her naked ambition, to her seeming denial of her cultural roots and to her sloppiness as a journalist.

For all her crankiness, Pat is the only character who seems to value the power of words and, consequently, the responsibility to execute journalistic responsibilities with care and precision. Were she working in the real world of journalism, she’d probably be unemployed.

Hall’s expert production clips along with help from set designer Lisa Clark’s sliding panels and Cy K. Eaton’s slick lighting design.

Secrets, lies and willful ignorance slide around the stage like those panels, giving us glimpses into the politics of newspapering and the racism of big city life. When a white man teaching at a mostly black inner city school is murdered, racial tension heightens in the city. That’s when two reporters, one ace, one novice, square off over getting the scoop on the murderer. Their duel is intense, and the results are frightening.

The scariest thing of all in this Story is the suppression of facts out of fear of political repercussion should the truth come out.

The Story continues through April 25 at SF Playhouse, 588 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40.Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org for information. For more on the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre season, visit www.lhtsf.org.

 

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