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Based on a true story” always sounds so movie-of-the-weekish, so bravo for Tracey Scott Wilson: Far from sticking slavishly to the events that inspired it, her snappy, savvy take on a famous Washington Post scandal looks behind and beyond the event, digging for the psychodrama fueling the story and framing the fallout in brisk scenes as lucid as they are concise. Bracing, funny, and staged with style and precision for the African Continuum Theatre Company by David Charles Goyette, The Story steers away from easy pop-psych answers, leaving enough of its questions unresolved to leave audiences arguing agreeably on their way out the door.
Wilson’s starting point is the notorious Janet Cooke episode, in which an ambitious reporter invented an 8-year-old heroin addict for a Post exposé that won a Pulitzer in 1981, only to be debunked days later. In this version, our aspirational antiheroine is Yvonne, a sleek, chic young striver who’s landed at the dominant paper in what could be any major American city—the script references a school named for Benjamin Banneker, a Northside area, and a trendy Brazilian restaurant in a neighborhood neglected since the 1960s—only to discover that her Harvard degree and her studies at the Sorbonne haven’t begun to prepare her for the generational, professional, and race-conscious jockeying in a newsroom populated by white “trust-fund babies,” 40-something integration-struggle veterans, and privileged, ambitious sharks much like herself.
Dreaming of flashy bylines and a spot on the paper’s National desk, Yvonne finds herself stuck instead in what’s apparently an African-American lifestyles section—an institutional ghetto she derides as “Ebony/Jet Junior,” though those 40-something veterans are fiercely proud of its informed take on urban issues—and there she languishes, generating more friction than copy, until the day she reports in from yet another deadly dull community-center opening with a tale about a remarkable young woman. Like Yvonne, Latisha is exceptional, “in da hood but not of it”; she speaks Italian and German, reads voraciously—and spends her off-hours running the streets with the AOBs, a girl gang whose members dress like “any other brother” and get away with crime after petty crime because neither victims nor cops can tell the difference. More startling yet, Yvonne reports, Latisha claims that the AOBs were behind the headline-grabbing shooting of a rich kid volunteering in a Teach for America–style program at that Banneker school. Cue the talk-show frenzy, the random arrests of local girls—and eventually the questions, from activists and cops and colleagues, too, about Yvonne’s sources and methods and motivations.
Wilson builds in the kinetics with plenty of crisply structured cross-talk, plus clever staging gestures like an Act 1 moment in which a chorus of three indistinguishable community-center directors morphs suddenly and seamlessly into three of their teenage charges. A hilarious sequence in which Yvonne (Chinasa Ogbuagu) and her equally hard-charging colleague Neil (KenYatta Rogers) explain each other’s psychodynamics to their respective bosses (Jason Stiles and Jewell Robinson)—prior to a dinner meeting at which each plans to exploit those psychodynamics to find out how far the other’s getting with the story they’re both chasing—lightens considerably what could have been heavy going, while throwing a little light as well on assumptions about race, class, and loyalty that linger on all sides.
Goyette puts these bits across with a gratifying clarity, and his cast handles Wilson’s fast-moving dialogue with ease. They even manage, without patness, to establish a nicely stratified sense of the interrelationships among the play’s African-American characters and the castes they’re clearly intended to represent. (The Story goes looking for both meaning and laughs, as it happens, in some of the same inter- and intra-racial territories as the brand-new Hollywood romance Something New—Yvonne’s eventual editor on the Latisha story is also her lover, and one of those white trust-fund babies to boot—and the startling thing is that it’s every bit as entertaining as Sanaa Hamri’s film.) The production benefits from slick design work, too; sets, costumes, lighting, and sound are all expressive, unified, and smart.
Without ever excusing Yvonne’s journalistic malfeasance—her colleagues’ scorn is lacerating, and even her lover turns on her ferociously—Wilson does let her character try (as Janet Cooke did) to explain the psychological pressures that led her from the mere sin of résumé-padding to the full-blown fabulism that eventually brings her down. And in a nicely balanced bit of Jekyll-and-Hyde dramatism, Wilson twins that particular set of expectations with another—a darker set that lets Yvonne keep obscuring the facts about Latisha from the audience, and maybe even from herself, right up to the curtain call.
If there’s a loose thread to this tale, it’s that that curtain call comes a little abruptly, at least in this staging. The second act, too, feels a whit less tight and crisp at African Continuum than the first. But that’s the sort of thing that shakes out, I suspect—and even if it doesn’t, there’s too much to like about Wilson’s Story to let a little unhappiness about the ending get in the way.
Three generations of not-quite-right women anchor Eleemosynary, the slender little Lee Blessing play now being staged by the Catalyst Theater Company, which concerns itself with a notion that might be summed up neatly as follows: We’re all a little screwed-up, and yet wouldja look at that, the world keeps turning.
There’s grandma Dorothea (Ellen Young), a rich widow who long ago looked at her male-dominated world and promptly took refuge in eccentricity; daughter Artemis (Kathleen Coons), a biochemist with an eidetic memory who reacts with appropriate brittleness to a controlling crackpot of a mother who makes her buckle on a pair of lace-and-lumber wings in the fervent belief that the proper frame of mind is all it takes for anyone to fly; and granddaughter Echo (Lindsay Haynes), a spelling-bee champion—thus the title—whom Artemis abandons to Dorothea’s tender mercies, half out of selfishness, half out of desperate fear.
Christopher Janson’s tender staging for Catalyst Theater misses the play’s edge—not that it has much—but does capture its heart, which is a generous one. Coons turns in a nicely tart performance as a woman caught between the pain inflicted by a bad mother and the paralysis of knowing she’s insufficiently maternal herself, and the design work is genuinely first-class: The set, by Milagros Ponce de Leon, is a graceful echo of those makeshift wings, and Alexander Cooper’s lighting makes a lyrically moody series of frames for the women, who keep breaking free of the story to comment directly to the audience about it.
That presentational business is a hurdle, one this production doesn’t quite get over. Haynes doesn’t have the requisite lightness, so her character can seem annoyingly chirpy; Young’s Dorothea, meanwhile, comes across as constantly afloat in a sea of woo-woo, which makes the character both more annoying and less poisonous than she needs to be. But the play’s real fault, if you want to look at it that way, is Blessing’s too-easy charity: The women manage to reconcile themselves by the end, after a Greek tragedy’s worth of betrayals, but it won’t be that simple for audiences. CP