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Phylicia Rashad, Erika Alexander, and Damon Gupton in The Story
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
The Story literally starts with a bang. Several bangs, in fact. A white woman named Jessica is giving a statement to a detective about the murder of her husband. As she tells the tale, it's re-enacted almost like a dream. They're in their car, lost in a bad part of town. Suddenly, her husband shudders as three bullets strike him in the chest. She says the killer is a black man. Is her story true? If this were a TV show, it would be either a "true crime" movie of the week or a fictional who-dunnit. But this is a play at the Public Theater so you can count on a sharp left turn -- with the emphasis on left.

As Tracey Scott Wilson's play unfolds, it becomes less about the murder and more about the racial politics of a big city newspaper as seen through the microcosm of its coverage of the killing. Pollinating this flowering tale is yet another drama about a new black reporter at the paper, who may or may not be playing fast and loose with the facts as she tries to make her reputation by single-handedly breaking the case wide open.

Yvonne (Erika Alexander) is of that new breed of young, empowered black women that doesn't relate to the struggle of their elders. She doesn't want to be a black reporter at the paper, covering "community" issues in the Outlook section of the paper -- a section that she considers a journalistic ghetto. She wants to be thought of as simply a reporter and wants to work on the city desk or even the national desk. Aggressive, smart, and pretty, she's a Harvard grad with a private school pedigree. Sexual as well as racial politics are at work here: Yvonne is having a secret affair with one of the paper's important white editors. Nonetheless, she's assigned to the Outlook section.

There is immediate friction between the resentful Yvonne and her old-guard boss, Pat (Phylicia Rashad). There is tension, as well, between Yvonne and a flirtatious black reporter named Neil (Damon Gupton), who's Pat's right hand man. He refers to Yvonne as "an uncertain sister," meaning that she's uncertain whether she's black or white. The question of racial loyalty runs through the play like an arrow. The Outlook section of the paper goes out of its way to find the good news in the black community and smother the bad.

Neil, in his pursuit of the murder case, develops the angle that the wife, Jessica, was somehow behind the murder; he reasons that, in most cases, it's usually the spouse who dunnit. Meanwhile, Yvonne discovers a source -- a young girl much like herself when she was a kid. The source tells her things about the case that, when reported, cause a firestorm of publicity. Yvonne's Outlook colleagues are shaken because she went over their heads to get her story published. But, like Jessica's story about the murder of her husband, there are questions about Yvonne's version of the truth.

Erika Alexander and Stephen Kunken in The Story
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Stylishly directed by Loretta Greco, the play often has two scenes unfolding at the same time, like two songs sung in counterpoint. This device drives home the fact that stories often have more than one side. Robert Brill's set design is purposefully simple and fluid; James Vermeulen's lighting helps to firmly establish the outlines of the different playing areas whenever two scenes are happening at the same time.

In a play that is so much about the viscosity of truth, the ability of the actors to play subtext is essential. That's where this potentially provocative play stumbles. Erika Alexander's Yvonne is opaque; she can play anger but there is nothing emotionally compelling about her one-note performance. Stephen Kunken, as her lover, seems bland; he should be an edgier character. Of the newspaper people, only Rashad and Gupton give vivid, multi-faceted performances. But the most grounded and real of the actors is Sarah Grace Wilson as Jessica.

The Story has elements of the current movie Shattered Glass and other recent exposés of reporters who fabricated their sources, their stories, sometimes their own personal histories. We've seen and heard too much about this kind of thing to find The Story particularly revealing or insightful on that issue. What's most intriguing about the plot is how Pat and Neil respond to what they learn about Yvonne. Not until just before the play ends does it really become interesting, because that's when the seeds of tragedy are sown.

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