Not long ago, before newspapers themselves were an endangered species, survival among journalists at the country’s leading papers was already a Darwinian proposition, especially for people of color. As playwright Tracey Scott Wilson limns the terrain in The Story, you need only add class, gender, and race to the equation to make things get very diceyand very complicatedvery fast.
Enter Yvonne Robinson (a sharp and charming Ryan Nicole Peters), an ambitious rookie reporter just hired to the local African American community section of a big Washington paper, a section hard-won by editor Pat (Holily Knox) and reporter Neil (Dwight Huntsman) as a corrective to the flagrantly racist coverage of the Metro section. But bright, highly educated Yvonne sees the position as stepping-stone to bigger things, beginning with the Metro section plans she discusses with her secret lover, the white editor of the Metro department (Craig Marker), himself nervously aware of the minefield of racial politics around them. Frustrated by Pat’s dull assignments, Yvonne finally hits on a career-making feature when she discovers and interviews the culprit in an infamous ongoing case involving a murdered white schoolteacher in the black ghetto. Yvonne’s confessor: a bright, highly educated young girl gang member (Kathryn Tell). Yvonne’s refusal to betray her sources, however, and other details surfacing in the wake of her sensational story, soon throw her credibility in doubt, enraging colleagues and dividing the newsroom as the walls close in.
If the plot sounds far-fetched, it’s actually not far from real events. The Story draws on the Janet Cooke scandal of the early 1980s Cooke, a young African American reporter at The Washington Post, won a Pulitzer Prize for a heart-rending 1980 feature on a heroin-addicted inner city child whom she later admitted was made up. Wilson makes recent history speak with dramatic and intellectual depth to a set of issues surrounding the everyday, real-world contexts of career, ambition, and racial perceptions and self-perceptions in American society.
Director Margo Hall’s smart and swift West Coast premiere, a coproduction between SF Playhouse and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, channels well the play’s fleet dialogue and triple-latte energy perhaps as much an homage to the representation of newspapers in popular culture as an accurate setting of the action at a big-city newspaper. Framed by Lisa Clark’s abstract set, a repeating series of banner headlines across the back of the stage, Hall’s cast proves sharp and engaging. At the same time, Wilson’s penchant for inter-cutting the rapid-fire dialogue between different but simultaneous scenes can seem strained at times, inadvertently pointing up the artificial nature of the set-up at least as much as the resonant ambiguity in the words and situations themselves. Nonetheless, that ambiguity and complexity make The Story well worth following through its various twists and turns not only in terms of plot, but in the unfolding reactions and re-reactions of the audience, as our sympathies and judgments zigzag.
Through April 25
Tues, 7 p.m.; Wed-Sat, 8 p.m. (also Sat, 3 p.m.), $30-$40
SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter, SF