“I am who I was supposed to be,” declares Yvonne Robinson (Lizzy Cooper Davis), the protagonist in Tracey Scott Wilson’s eminently germane journalistic thriller, “The Story,” now playing at the Long Wharf. But who Yvonne really is, and more importantly, what she is “supposed to be” to her white boyfriend, to her black co-workers and to her average American readers, are questions that the audience is forced to consider.
A confident, young, black reporter, Yvonne wants to escape from the “Ebony-Jet Jr.” journalism that she believes so many black reporters fall into. We are told that she attended Groton, graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, got her Master’s in journalism and speaks four languages. Standing in the middle of the newsroom of the eponymous “The Daily,” she tells her boss, Pat (Sharon Washington), “I want to be a reporter, not a black reporter,” and has her sights set on the national desk. But she will have to settle for the weekly Outlook section of the paper, which Pat runs like a mother’s den. Outlook, with its high concentration of black reporters, “gives us the chance to write about the positive things in our community,” Pat exudes, in stark opposition to the reviled Metro section. There, according to Neil, Yvonne’s restless but proudly black competitor who refers to her as an “uncertain sister,” every day it’s “just another brother doing the perp walk.” Yvonne swallows her assignments, seemingly all of which have to do with neighborhood community centers. Then, the story comes.
Yvonne receives a phone call from a teenage girl, Latisha (Tammi Clayton), who claims to have murdered a wealthy white man, Tim Dunn, in front of his wife at a gas station. Latisha tells juicy stories of an all-female gang and their reckless pursuits. The murder has captivated the city for weeks, and while Yvonne steadfastly believed that Dunn had obviously been killed by a black man, Pat and Neil argue that Dunn’s wife, now an heiress, is a possible suspect. Their differing assumptions prove to be an immediate source of tension, and when Yvonne gets her new source, she appears vindicated. The murderer is not a male, but black. Close enough.
This is not the end of the story, of course, and Yvonne’s integrity will be tested in the second act. “The Story” is a terse and rapid production, appropriate for its newsroom atmosphere. Many of Wilson’s scenes transpire with all four principles: Yvonne, Pat, Neil and Jeff (Yvonne’s reporter boyfriend) in heated exchanges, often with several conversations simultaneously interspersed. The dynamic between Pat, who represents an older generation and sees all issues through the lens of race, and Yvonne, who fresh off the block would rather the pesky issue be ignored altogether, is especially exciting to watch.
There are obvious political dimensions of the play, and Wilson is an admitted political writer. The characters of Pat, Neil and Yvonne are overtly political, and audiences will find themselves immediately forming an impression of these individuals based upon their own political biases. Admittedly, no one truly comes off as particularly likeable in the first act. Yet progressing into the second, the tables are turned. I am hard pressed to believe that there is not some political motivation in Yvonne’s downfall and dehumanization, and this collapse is carried a bit too far.
In a year replete with journalistic scandals, its surprising to hear that “The Story” was written in 2002, before the Jayson Blair scandal ever came to light. Yet Wilson’s art does imitate life. The plot is based on the travails of Janet Cooke, a black reporter from The Washington Post who in Sept. 1980 wrote an acclaimed story about an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. Questions began to surface about the veracity of Cooke’s story soon after it was published and many doubted that Jimmy even existed. Nevertheless, Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize the following year, only to admit that indeed her story was false, that she had heard about a supposed child smack addict but due to high pressure and her inability to track him down, made him up instead. It was later revealed that Cooke had also fabricated much of her resume in order to get a job at The Post. She resigned, and Post editor Ben Bradlee returned the Pulitzer two days later.
“The Story” will captivate you regardless of your interest in journalism, for it touches all of us in questioning the most basic notions of identity. Just as there is always more than one side to any person, the same applies to any story.
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