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Old News

April 8, 2009

In an age where newspapers are in decline, a play about the power of the press seems dated.

The news industry has been taking a hammering on all sides of late. With the San Francisco Chronicle's owner threatening to sell or fold the paper because of financial problems, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer going Web-only in mid-March, the business of print journalism as we know it seems to be fading fast. If, 10 years ago, someone had asked me to imagine a world without experienced reporters and insightful columnists, I would have laughed at them. Now the writing on the wall seems all too clear.

With this in mind, I can't help but approach SF Playhouse and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre's West Coast premiere coproduction of Tracey Scott Wilson's 2003 newsroom drama, The Story, with disbelief. The talented creative team does what it can to fashion a pithy theatrical experience through director Margo Hall's slick mise-en-scène; the committed, fluid performances from the entire ensemble cast; and such visual elements as the artful scenic juxtaposition of black-and-white newspaper flats and dirty, graffiti-scrawled facades. But despite the team's bold efforts, Wilson's Story still comes across as yesterday's news.

The basic problem with The Story is the story. The play takes its inspiration from the real-life case of Janet Cooke, a talented young black reporter for The Washington Post. Cooke won a Pulitzer for an unflinching article she wrote in 1980 about a young boy who had become a victim of the city's epidemic heroin trade, only to be later stripped of American journalism's most prestigious award when her gutsy investigative exposé was revealed to be fake.

Wilson's drama resuscitates Cooke's spirit in the guise of Yvonne Robinson, a talented young black reporter for a fictional metropolitan newspaper. When the rookie journalist begins her job, she's assigned to the "Outlook" section, a black-affirmative segment run by an opinionated, racial-politics–obsessed female editor by the name of Pat. The two fail to hit it off, so the ambitious debutante sets out to get a transfer to what she sees as a more high-profile part of the paper. In the wake of the killing of a young white middle-class teacher, our heroine apparently stumbles across the scoop of a lifetime. But the publication of her bombshell story about gun-toting gangs of teenage girls doesn't quite lead to the transfer she desires, much less a Pulitzer.

From a dramatic perspective, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with Wilson's premise. It certainly has the makings of high drama. But, somewhat ironically given the title of the work, the playwright doesn't seem to have a clear idea of what story she's telling. Wilson's attempt to grapple with several enormous media-oriented issues — including the industrywide glass ceiling facing black and female journalists; the portrayal of minorities in the mainstream media; the moral tension between divulging sensitive information and protecting sources; and the ethics of embellishing the facts to further one's career — considerably undermines the strength of the central plotline. Just as Pat and Yvonne argue over whether to define the rookie's scoop as a story about the pressures placed on inner-city black girls to succumb to gangland clichés (Pat's spin), or — as Yvonne would have it — the crime narrative of the decade, so Wilson can't quite figure out how to package her tale.

Not only does Wilson not know what story to tell, but she also doesn't do it — whatever it is — very well. Part of the problem stems from the use of the play's core dramaturgical conceit: the construction of scenes in which multiple characters are onstage at the same time, conducting simultaneous conversations through a mixture of direct dialogue and reported speech.

A few lines from an exchange among Yvonne, Pat, and fellow journalist Jeff describing Yvonne's encounter with a local teenager, Latisha, illustrate this technique:

Yvonne (to Jeff): She's in da hood but not of it. (To Pat): She was different from the girls I usually meet. A very high IQ, I'm sure.

Latisha (During this scene, she speaks only to Yvonne): My parents were activists from the '60s.

Yvonne (to Pat and Jeff): She was witty, ironic, smarter than her years.

Latisha: Hence the pseudo-African name. (Pointing to herself.) Latisha.

Yvonne (to Pat and Jeff): I liked her right away.

This reporterly approach to dialogue cleverly underscores the journalistic theme of the play. The self-consciousness of the conceit brings the character of Yvonne to mind, as if Wilson were channeling her protagonist through her own writing style. But Wilson uses the technique so frequently — most of the scenes between the journalists evolve in this fashion — that it soon becomes heavy-handed and dull. The actors — Ryan Peters (Yvonne), Craig Marker (Jeff), Halili Knox (Pat), and Dwight Huntsman (Neil) — approach Wilson's complex, quick-fire exchanges with flowing precision. Yet even the vividness of their characterizations, Hall's taut blocking, and the sharp use of silhouette lighting (evoking the "black-and-white" world of racial politics and newsprint) fail to alleviate the tedium of Wilson's journalism-inspired dramaturgy.

When The Story premiered at New York's Public Theater in 2003 in a production directed by the Magic Theatre's Loretta Greco and starring Phylicia Rashad, the ideas it encompasses probably seemed extremely raw. The country was still reeling from the Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times. Shattered Glass, the film about disgraced New Republic journalist Stephen Glass, also came out that year. Right now, however, debates about newsroom politics and ethics, though important, seem rather beside the point. The play's final scene, in which the controversy surrounding Yvonne's refusal to hand over information about her sources reaches boiling point, is supposed to serve as an ominous reminder of the power of the press and what can happen when that power is abused. But owing to the declining influence of newspapers in the 21st century, Wilson's depiction of media muscle seems rather outdated. Now, rather than ruin the lives of others, newspapers are struggling just to save their own lives. "Journalist Fabricates News" is yesterday's headline. As for today's story? Try "Newspapers on Life Support."



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