It’s rare to come across a play that offers a searing critique of the Black bourgeoisie, the do-gooder white liberals, the elders of the civil rights movement and the media industry, but Tracey Scott Wilson’s play The Story does just that and does it brilliantly. In fact, her play makes you laugh so much and nod your head so often that it’s only at the stunning end when you realize that her critique of race and class issues has not spared anyone—including yourself.
The play, wonderfully directed by Margo Hall and executed by a talented cast, centers on the plight of a young Black reporter, Yvonne (skillfully played by Ryan Nicole Peters). The rookie journalist wants to be a metro reporter at The Daily but ends up instead working for the Outlook, the paper’s section about the Black community. Out come all of the characters so familiar to anyone who’s worked in a newsroom: the white boyfriend who’s a metro editor and seems so sensitive about race issues, the older and only Black editor who integrated the newspaper, the young Black guy who graduated from Howard University and now wants to write about his people in the hood.
Yvonne’s ambitions are to cover more than just so-called Black issues, which doesn’t sit well with her Black colleagues. As Yvonne puts it: “All the cool Black kids hate me.” In her coworkers’ eyes, she doesn’t get the racial politics of the newsroom.
Oh, but she does. It’s just that Yvonne believes she can be the exception. And while it’s easy to be annoyed by her, it’s hard to resent her. She’s so hopeful, so dream-filled, so funny. When she gets a break on a major crime story, you find yourself cheering for her as she runs around town chasing a source. And then you find yourself horrified when she takes the opportunity to further her career at a devastating cost to herself and the community.
The play is loosely based on the real-life story of Janet Cook, a Black reporter at the Washington Post, who in 1981 lost her Pulitzer award when it was revealed that she had made up her prize-winning story about a heroin-addicted boy. She had also lied about her professional credentials. Cook admitted at the time that the intensity of newspaper politics had impaired her judgment and had led her to fabricate the story.
Wilson’s play shows how those pressures bear down on a Black reporter in a white newsroom, but it also opens up the lens to let us see the newsroom as a microcosm of American life. And this delivers a much harsher reality. For while the civil-rights movement opened doors to powerful institutions like media companies, it didn’t fundamentally change those places nor did it alter the class structure in the Black community. Young people of color like Yvonne today are largely left to their own devices to make sense of a culture where they can walk in through the front door of a newspaper but still be defined by the color of their skin and where the greatest aspiration sold to them by family and media alike is the financial stability of the Black bourgeois class.
They also negotiate with a troubling and persistent feature of this country’s racial terrain: the myth of the exceptional Black person.
Yvonne perfectly embodies the person of color who genuinely believes that being seen as exceptional is a “get out jail free” card that lets her bypass racism. It is, of course, a card that gets ripped away eventually. As Latisha, a Black teenager in the play who’s at the top of her class, points out: “I spoke German and Italian and you still believed the worst about me.”
Yvonne, like Latisha, finds herself as a young Black woman adapting to a world that is shifting around race. And a large part of what makes this play so satisfying to watch is that it is about shifts—the shift of leadership from civil-rights leaders to a younger generation, the shifts that young people of color negotiate about their racial identities and professional aspirations, and the internal (and funny and painful) shifts that result from a daily battle about race and class. What makes the play so memorable is that you are left in the end to question how you yourself are responding to these changes and to wonder if there’s a better way.
The Story, which opened in New York in 2003, is making its West Coast premier in San Francisco at SF Playhouse through April 25. Wilson’s new play The Good Negro is playing at The Public Theater in New York through April 19.
Published RaceWire.org, Apr. 17, 2009