Theater-goers usually have a good time at K-State’s Purple Masque, and they almost always see something compelling when Ebony Theater has the stage. But Shon Ruffin’s version of Tracey Scott Wilson’s “The Story” was even more rewarding than other recent offerings.
The show ran last weekend in the small, haunted theater in East Memorial Stadium. Wilson’s play has already had runs at New York City’s Public Theater and elsewhere.
It is a script about race and about the press and about where we are in our pursuit of social fairness. So it would be over-simplification to say The Story is about the results of forty years of Affirmative Action, though that program does come to mind.
The action is set in a large city (I think Philadelphia is mentioned). Two recent college graduates, a married couple of White kids, have taken jobs teaching in a poor area where most of the residents are African-American.
Driving to dinner they get lost in their new neighborhood. The man is shot and killed.
Meanwhile there is a new reporter at the city’s newspaper, The Daily (as the Times Roman masthead reproduction over the set’s back wall announces). Yvonne (Erika Williams) has great academic credentials and, secretly, a Caucasian beau in editorial. But she is assigned to work for the paper’s Outlook Section.
She soon learns that this group of Black reporters understand their racial duty requires them to cover the doings at “community centers” and to deny stereotypes to the point of slanting their stories. These practices are defended by section chief Pat (Angelica McKinnis), a veteran of the staff who believes her journalistic independence will allow her to advance the civil rights cause of the 1960s.
Reporter Neil (Darrington Clark with a pencil behind his ear) sees things the way Pat does. Yvonne, on the other hand, defends her refusal to adopt conventional African-American methods and manners. Then, on one of her stops at dull community centers, she meets a high school girl who, like her, speaks Italian and German and has been exposed to the intellectual accomplishments of western civilization.
But then Latisha (Egypt Edwards) admits to being in a street gang of thieves. Oh, and she shot the White teacher who got lost on his way to dinner.
Yvonne meets with Latisha a couple of times without getting any solid contact information for her. When the reporter turns in her story, Pat is aghast. This is not a crime story to her; it is an opportunity for her opponents in The Struggle to refresh anti-Black and anti-poor cliches.
Pat assigns Neil to research the story, and he finds no evidence of the existence of Latisha’s gang.
He can’t find her, either. Then the girl finds Yvonne and tries to retract what she’s said. This was all just an experiment by her to see if a Black-in-name-only adult would be as easily fooled by her claims to a cliché street life as have the girl’s own White classmates.
Then there are two more surprises. Neil’s opposition research suggests Yvonne may not be who she claims. But Pat may refuse to expose the new reporter.
The play uses an interesting technique, dramatizing actions as they are being recalled.
So actors may be performing in two different time frames, different settings, and with different characters in alternate sentences. Usually this worked well, but sometimes the intercutting of two telephone conversations became a little confusing-which pairs of people were talking to each other?
The production’s real asset was pace. As a director, experienced actress Ruffin knew to keep things popping along. The entertainment had palpable energy.
And after it was over we went away with a much more complicated notion of the state of race relations.
It may be that the newspaper’s internal segregation was not a fair representation of where we are now. And surely Yvonne’s convenient relativism is not a fair representation of the ethics of very many well-prepared African-American workers. But is there something to Pat’s way of perceiving the present?
Those of us who saw the play had to consider all this as we left the theater.