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Truth Be Damned

The intriguing yet unsatisfying play The Story takes on race, class, sex and politics

Journalists are supposed to tell the facts -- not embellish, alter or fabricate them. But that didn't stop Steven Glass from making up 27 stories that were published in The New Republic, Harper's, Rolling Stone and the now-defunct George in the late '90s, about everything from partying Republican youths to anarchic Internet hackers. The eventual revelation of Glass's fabrications caused a scandal -- and inspired the 2003 film Shattered Glass -- but this was hardly the first time a reporter had told lies to get ahead.

One of the first to be unceremoniously ousted was Janet Cooke of The Washington Post, a young black writer whose meteoric career was the envy of other journalists. In 1980, she detailed the deplorable young life of eight-year-old "Jimmy," a cocaine addict with "needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms." This devastating portrait of a young boy from the projects unleashed an unprecedented reader response, forcing government agencies to try to find the boy and give him help. Cooke wouldn't reveal her sources, saying the boy's life was threatened by drug dealers. And the Post stood by her. But by the time she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the story the following year, the powers that be at the prestigious newspaper had become suspicious about her adamant refusals. And they'd discovered that she'd lied on her résumé. Confronted, Cooke confessed everything. Yes, she'd lied on her résumé; worse, there had never been a "Jimmy." She had made the whole thing up. She immediately resigned, and the contrite Post returned the tainted Pulitzer.

Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson used the Cooke case as the basis of her intriguing yet unsatisfying play The Story, now running at the Ensemble Theatre. The drama deals with race, class, sex and politics -- you can't get more timely than that -- but it's Wilson's overly stylized treatment of play-writing mechanics that trip her up, defusing the work's impact.

Has Yvonne (Rachel Hemphill-Dickson, left, with Jia 
Taylor's Latisha) concocted her entire story? You 
decide.
Has Yvonne (Rachel Hemphill-Dickson, left, with Jia Taylor's Latisha) concocted her entire story? You decide.

Ambitious, haughty Yvonne (Rachel Hemphill-Dickson), with a sterling résumé that boasts the Sorbonne and Harvard as alma maters, has been hired by the prestigious Daily to write for their Outlook section. Overseen by '60s liberal Pat (Deborah Oliver Artis), this section of the newspaper gives a positive voice to the black community. Itching to move up into the bolder Metro section and beyond, Yvonne isn't satisfied writing puff pieces about bland inner-city activity centers and doesn't hide her contempt for such assignments from Pat. They clash instantly. Also, unbeknownst to the rest of the office, Yvonne is having an affair with Metro editor Jeff (Justin Doran), who is white.

When a white schoolteacher is murdered, a tragedy that threatens to set the city afire, Yvonne, seizing the moment, bucks the system and investigates on her own. She uncovers street-wise Latisha (Jia Taylor), who confesses to being part of an all-girl band of thugs who shot the teacher. Yvonne's story is catapulted to headline news, over the objections of Pat and colleague Neil (J.D. Hawkins), who begin having doubts about Yvonne's credentials and reliability after they discover discrepancies in her résumé.

As it turns out, Latisha has lied to Yvonne to get into the papers and, in fact, may not exist at all. Has Yvonne concocted the entire story? Because of what her co-workers say is her deep-seated shame in being black, Yvonne has indeed fabricated her own history. It's logical that she's also made up Latisha. It's an open-ended question that Wilson doesn't answer by the play's end, which leaves the tale dangling precariously.

The social issues that swirl throughout The Story are relevant and powerful by themselves; they don't need Wilson's theatrical effects, which only soften the hard edges. One of her devices is for two scenes to play out simultaneously. This doesn't speed up the action -- if anything, the matching, overlapping dialogue comes across as arch and unreal. Wilson's gritty, torn-from-the-headlines tale doesn't need artifice to make an impact. The production is stylish and moves swiftly under Marsha Jackson-Randolph's cinematic direction, and the cast is engrossing. But the play is so sated with hot-button ideas that it can't contain them all. A more straightforward approach would work wonders.

 
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