Keeping it unreal 

The Story looks at racism and fraud behind the headlines

It's becoming a cliché that one wrong turn can ignite a big-city ethnic firestorm. Theatre in the Square's newspaper drama The Story begins with a pair of inner-city teachers getting lost in a blighted neighborhood until one falls to a gunshot from an unidentified black assailant. The Story's opening crime resembles the tipping-point episodes of contemporary urban dramas from Bonfire of the Vanities to Freedomland.

The play's subsequent dragnets, protests and journalistic feeding frenzies only set the stage for the story that takes place behind the headlines. Playwright Tracy Scott Wilson provides a fresh and intricate treatment of fraud in the newsroom and racial tension in corporate America. Nevertheless, at times The Story's rich complexities feel like an outline that somebody never finished filling in.

Yvonne (Candice Afia), a rising African-American star reporter, enters a minefield when she takes a job at an unnamed metropolitan daily. She starts with the newspaper's "Outlook" section, a department aimed at the African-American community and edited by pioneering black newswoman Pat (Joan Pringle). Yvonne longs to break major stories for other departments and chafes at writing uplifting stories about community centers for Pat, who strives to keep things positive.

Yvonne's "authenticity" as a black woman frequently becomes an issue, and Afia subtly conveys her character's awareness of the different degrees of social "blackness." Pat's star reporter, Neal (Cedric Pendleton III), nicknames her "Uncertain Sistah," perceiving an absence of black pride, while Yvonne reveals that classmates called her names like "Oreo" for talking too "white" while growing up. When she meets a prodigiously bright inner-city girl named Latisha (Farida Kalala), Yvonne thinks she's found a kindred spirit -- until Latisha reveals what she knows about the murder that opens the play.

With echoes of New York Times fabricator Jayson Blair and other high-profile plagiarism cases, The Story repeatedly touches on themes of people recounting events, passing along hearsay and distorting facts. Frequently the playwright intercuts between a conversation or action and a participant's subsequent account of it: The opening scene volleys between the teachers getting lost and the survivor making a statement to the police afterward.

The gimmick injects many snappy, overlapping voices in the play, as if living up to the popular Front Page image of fast-paced journalism. It can also be contrived and confusing. Director Gary Yates effectively ramps up the play's tension through the actors, but has trouble conveying the plot with clarity. We become extremely mixed up, for instance, about the sequence and number of times that Yvonne meets Latisha. It's hard to tell if the obscurity is intentional, like a liar losing track of a cover story.

The play's cleverest moment comes when suspicious Yvonne and too-smooth Neal share a "friendly" lunch while trying to uncover what each other knows about the murder. First the meal unfolds amiably, but that's only the best-case scenario. In reality, the meeting ends with them at each other's throats. In a more conventional comedic play, Neal and Yvonne's rivalry would blossom into respect and romance. Here, their initial dislike simply feeds into deeper dislike.

Just as Theatre in the Square's Alley Stage production of Yellowman in February explored black-on-black racism, so does The Story in delving into how skin color feeds cutthroat office politics. Pat eloquently points out how the corporate world will judge all African-American employees based on the errors of a single one. Pat and Neal grow to oppose Yvonne, but wonder whether tearing her down will harm the greater good.

The Story's abrupt ending packs an unexpected punch, leaving all kinds of scandals and legal tangles to the audience's imagination. The play's relatively brief running time (about 90 minutes with intermission) feels scarcely adequate to address all the issues it brings up, including Yvonne's secret affair with one of the paper's white editors (Bobby Labartino). The Story proves to be the rare case of a play that you wish would put out an extra edition.

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