Tracey Scott Wilson’s smart, taut media-scandal drama, The Story, offers more than the plot’s “ripped from the headlines” cachet. After all, when a pseudonymous nonjournalist for a pseudo news agency can get White House press credentials and lob sycophantic softballs at the president, we’ve probably reached a point in the media-fabrication department where there aren’t many surprises left.
Wilson’s play is loosely based on the 1981 Janet Cooke case–the mother of all journalism scandals. A black reporter at the Washington Post, Cooke won a Pulitzer for “Jimmy’s World,” an article about an eight-year-old heroin addict. She refused to reveal the boy’s real name or where he lived, citing the need to protect her sources. The paper’s editors initially stood by her, but once they found that she’d lied extensively on her resume they confronted her, and she admitted making the whole thing up–later blaming pressure from Post editors to produce award-winning work. Since Cooke the hall of shame for media liars has grown: Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe, Wade Roberts of the Sun-Times, Stephen Glass of the New Republic, and Jayson Blair of the New York Times.
Though in Smith’s and Blair’s cases well-meaning but misguided attempts to integrate newsrooms were blamed in part, affirmative action doesn’t explain the astounding pathology of the arrogant Glass, who’s white. As a friend observed, what Blair and Glass prove is that affirmative action is mostly a problem when it’s affirmative action on behalf of chronic ass kissers, particularly when they’re eager to succeed without paying their dues.
Media corruption and racial tensions aren’t Wilson’s only themes: she’s more interested in the extreme measures some people take to construct and protect a public persona that’s at odds with their real history. At a deeper level, it’s about the search for authenticity beyond the defining categories of race, class, and gender.
The Cooke stand-in is Yvonne (Lizzy Cooper Davis), a sharp-tongued, ambitious young reporter at a big-city daily. Yvonne claims impressive academic credentials–Groton and Harvard–and has a romantic relationship with white Metro section editor and “trust fund baby” Jeff (Kevin McKillip). But to her dismay she finds herself starting in the Outlook section, which exists primarily to deliver positive stories about the black community. Because of the lame assignments she keeps getting, Yvonne clashes early and often with her middle-aged editor, Pat (Goodman stalwart Jacqueline Williams in a powerhouse turn). Pat, who integrated the newsroom, doesn’t think racism within the paper or outside it has changed much over the years–she tells Yvonne, “This paper is Alabama.” Pat’s ambitious protege, Neil (Patrick Sims), is deeply suspicious of the new hire, calling her “an uncertain sister”–his less abrasive alternative to “Oreo.”
Neil and Yvonne are both covering the unsolved murder of a white inner-city schoolteacher from a wealthy family, who’s left behind a young widow. Neil focuses on the widow, unearthing her relatively impoverished childhood and “Italian” family connections. But Yvonne finds an unexpected and perhaps unreliable source in an intelligent black high school girl, Latisha (a beguiling Monet Butler), who claims to be part of a gang of girls and suggests they killed the teacher.
The story’s satisfying twists unfold through rapid-fire crosscutting dialogue that adroitly captures the players’ shifting alliances and personas. Neil and Yvonne agree to meet for a hatchet-burying lunch, during which each plans to suss out what the other knows about the story. Pat and Neil work out how he should behave toward Yvonne, just as Yvonne and Jeff discuss how she’ll play the situation. Yvonne says to Jeff, “I’ll invoke the name of ‘the man,'” then immediately afterward turns to Neil at lunch and says sweetly, “I was really naive when I started work. I’m starting to sense a lot of racism. Subtle racism.” In Chuck Smith’s sharp, clean staging, these scenes zing by like effortless fastballs.
Wilson isn’t concerned with making her characters likable: their ambiguity is one strength of her writing. Only the besieged widow, played with great emotional resonance by Kati Brazda, comes across as appealing. In Spinning Into Butter Rebecca Gilman, the Goodman’s poster girl of social-issue dramas, sets up the viewer by creating a nice, white liberal professor who eventually delivers a ponderous monologue that reveals her inner racist. Wilson’s characters are too busy working the game for reflection. That apparent lack of self-awareness is risky–occasionally one feels Wilson is painting by numbers rather than fully investigating her characters. But the fact is most people don’t think out loud about the split between who they are and who they pretend to be. It’s not race or gender or class that’s responsible for Yvonne’s undoing; it’s her need to create a version of herself that transcends these categories, no matter how distant that version is from the truth.
Wilson’s abrupt, rather unrealistic ending isn’t up to the same standard as the finely crafted scenes that precede it. But overall she provides a timely reminder of how easy it is to compromise ethics in pursuit of short-term glory.
When: Through 4/10: Wed 7:30 PM, Thu 2 and 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 7:30 PM
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Info: 312-443-3800 (TTY 312-443-3829)
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.