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To top of this day's posts Friday, September 23, 2005

Zeitgeist Stage Company,
at BCA Plaza Black Box, Boston Center for the Arts,
through September 24.

After seeing this play by Tracey Scott Wilson, I learned of the controversy over the captions of the two news photographs of the recent hurricane aftermath in New Orleans. A black man, seen in chest-deep water, was described as carrying an item "looted" from a grocery store; while a white pair, in a similar photograph, was described as having "found" the bread and soda that they were carrying. Is it likely that the reporters had witnessed how their respective subjects acquired the items, and that the captions indeed reported the facts? Yes. It is also likely that racial stereotypes played a role in the (possibly unconscious) judgements that led to these captions. Worse still, it is likely that there was an intentional misrepresentation in the captions. Perhaps an investigation would determine the truth with some certainty, and even then it might remain elusive...remember OJ?

We have, by and large, accepted the unacceptability of human inequity, and all but banished it from our consciouness. The version of truth thus built is corroborated by the visible signs of the equity we have attempted to engineer. The inequity, however, remains in exile. It is, we (perhaps unconsciously) hope, safely contained in our prisons, including those we call "bad neighborhoods," "projects," and the like. Occasionally it spills out of its confines and shamelessly disrupts the truth of our controlled equity. In The Story I saw this disruption, in which the truth, whatever it is, ends up mangled, like in the brouhaha over the hurricane photographs.

Yvonne (Nydia Calón) is an ambitious reporter with a resumé stamped with prestigious academic brand-names, and a facility with languages. She is also black. She considers her initial assignment to the lifestyle section of a newspaper to be a stepping stone to the more substantial metro section. To her boss, Pat (Michelle Dowd), and colleague, Neil (Keedar Whittle) -- both also black -- she is an "uncertain sister," uncomfortable with her blackness and disloyal to it. They see the evidence of this in her eagerness to move from their hard-won Afro-centric section to one that is not. Could they be correct? She does after all have a white boyfriend, Jeff (Gabriel Field), in the metro section, who is also a "trust-fund baby," and who doesn't want her to make their relationship known at work, because the environment is "edgy" about inter-racial matters.

A story with which she could make her mark falls into Yvonne's lap when a young, black teenager, Latisha (Chantel Nicole Bibb), confesses to her that she was the one who shot the white teacher, whose murder in a black neighborhood has been all over the news. Yvonne connects with Latisha, who, like Yvonne, comes from an affluent background, is smart and a polyglot, and complains about her classmates at her private school expecting her to know the ways of "the hood." Latisha explains being a member of a gang as a way to live the stereotype that she is expected to be.

Pat is none too happy with Yvonne's pursuit of this "crime story." She worries that this "truth" will reinforce the notion of black criminal pathology, which is among the many misperceptions that she has passionately struggled to counter. She dispatches Neil to find a more palatable telling of the story. Neil discovers that Yvonne has fabricated the credentials on her resume, which of course calls into question the veracity of the story that Yvonne wants to report.

Although inspired by the case of Janet Cooke, Wilson is less interested here in its ethics debate, than in what drives such a bright and capable person to resort to such grand deceptions in the pursuit of accolades:

I think it comes out of fear and desperation. The problem is once you start lying, especially on a large scale, it becomes addictive and second nature, but you have to maintain it. And when you lie about your core being, you cause a lot of damage to yourself. When I was younger, I went through a period where I lied to myself because I wanted to be somebody else.

Indeed, as Hilton Als puts it in The New Yorker, it is "a self-portrait, a profound 'what if' meditation on the part of the author." In doing so, Wilson also exposes the complexity of the truth:

Class, race, politics. It all intersects. I think the media likes to focus only on race, and usually in very simplistic ways. Black versus white. Guilty versus victim. But I think those lines are often blurry and complex. The personal is the political. The political is the personal. And ambition is ambition no matter what class or race you are from.

Wilson imaginatively makes separate conversations -- some of which are internal -- intersect on stage. To me, these felt like the criss-crossing paths that the various aspects of the truth of the story took. Nydia Calón's Yvonne is appropriately desperate and cold, while Michelle Dowd's Pat carries her years of struggle with self-righteous poise. David J. Miller's direction keeps the one-act play brisk and riveting. Miller is also the scenic designer. The audience in the BCA Plaza Black Box watches from the four rectangular corners cut out from a rectangular room. The rest of the room forms the stage, the floor and walls of which are covered with newspapers. This is a perfect backdrop for this story about a news story.

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2:38:14 AM  To top of this post

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