Monday, March 30, 2009

Talking The Talk

We all know people who lie. Some people are just better at it than others.

Some simply can't stop doing it. Some (Ann Coulterand Nancy Pfotenhauer quickly come to mind) have even made a profession of it. When Al Franken wrote Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair And Balanced Look At The Right, his goal was to unmask some of the right-wing political operatives whose lies have had such a negative impact on American culture.

But what about the lies we tell in order to make things happen in our daily lives? What about the people who punch up their resumes? What about those who claim to have a "swimmer's body" when they're built much more like a dugong or manatee? What about those who claim to be a top?

Small lies can have larger consequences when the individual's performance comes up for review. Here's the problem: Sometimes we repeat the lies we tell so many times that we start believing them ourselves. Sometimes we don't even bother to tell the lie to others; we simply tell it to ourselves and accept it as an inner truth. Unless, of course, we have a specific need to rewrite history.

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In 1998, reporter Stephen Glass was fired by The New Republic after it was discovered that he had fabricated sources, events, and quotations used in his articles. In May of 2003, Jayson Blair resigned from The New York Times for similar misdeeds of "creative" writing.

Recent years have seen best-selling memoirs unmasked as fiction and professional journalists criticized for their willingness to forego some necessary fact-checking to avoid alienating their precious "sources." Judith Miller eventually "retired" from her job at The New York Times in November 2005 after her cheerleading for the Bush administration's rush to war cost the newspaper some valuable credibility. In January of 2006, The Smoking Gun published an article entitled A Million Little Lies: Exposing James Frey's Fiction Addiction. When Oprah Winfrey discovered that Frey's memoir (entitled A Million Little Pieces), which she had recommended to Oprah's Book Club was a fraud, there was hell to pay.

You don't fuck with Oprah.

It's hard to believe that more than a quarter century has passed since a female black journalist for The Washington Post first published an article about a young heroin addict which received the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. Two days after the announcement of the prize, the publisher of The Washington Post revealed that "Jimmy's World" was a fraud. Its author, Janet Cooke, ended up returning her Pulitzer and leaving the newspaper. The Cooke episode served as the inspiration for Tracey Scott Wilson's drama, The Story, which is currently being co-produced by the Lorraine Hansberry Theater and SF Playhouse. Writing in The New Yorker Magazine, theater critic Hilton Als noted at the time of the New York production that:
"Wilson’s doggedness is due perhaps to her background: growing up in a middle-class black family in Newark, New Jersey, Wilson said in a recent Times interview, she “understood the need not to fail,” adding, “You had to be the best.” Being “the best” also meant, of course, being fettered by a number of expectations, the most insidious of which was the pressure not to upset the black status quo by becoming something other than a doctor or a lawyer—acceptable roles, modeled on white images of “success.” In Wilson’s social milieu, if you had to become a writer (the most errant-minded occupation of all), you were expected at least to become a university writer-in-residence or a reporter on the staff of a respected newspaper—institutions that would legitimatize the need to speak. This push toward professional conformity in black American culture is an interesting and sad conundrum, one as old as Booker T. Washington. While trying to represent the world of her imagination, Wilson had to contend with the voices of respectability in her head. It’s a tension that is rarely represented on the page, let alone on the stage. To speak of it is, in a way, a criticism of the tribe, of one’s own flesh and blood."
The Story centers around an aspiring black journalist named Yvonne Robinson, who gets hired by the same employer served by her boyfriend Jeff (Craig Marker), a white trust-fund baby editing the Metro section of a daily newspaper. All too aware of the glass ceiling which has prevented female journalists from advancing in the newsroom -- and fully cognizant that her race may be an obstacle to her professional goals -- Yvonne wants to fast-track her career.

Ryan Peters and Craig Marker
(Photo by Rebecca Martinez)

Yvonne is more than willing to bypass old-timers like Pat (the "section" editor who has been trying to shine a light on positive news stories about people and events in the black community in order to counteract the media's constant emphasis on crime). However, whether due to professional jealousy or their inherent cynicism, both Pat (Halili Knox) and her investigative reporter, Neil (Dwight Huntsman), are quick to smell a rat. 

Something about Yvonne just doesn't ring true.

The problem is that Yvonne is an extremely talented liar -- the kind of person who is more than willing to "play" anyone who either crosses her path (or who can help her to achieve her goals). Just imagine Budd Schulberg's back-stabbing Sammy Glick (What Makes Sammy Run?) as an ambitious black woman at a big city newspaper, add in a dash of Eve Harrington, and you have a pretty good idea of what's coming down the pike.

When a white schoolteacher who has been working in a ghetto school is killed on his way to a local restaurant, Yvonne (Ryan Peters) wants to treat the situation as the crime story that it is, instead of being forced to write an endless stream of puff pieces about local community centers. When Pat and Neil keep blocking her efforts, she "discovers" a story about an intelligent, highly-educated young black girl who claims to have shot the schoolteacher. To make matters even more controversial (and deserving of media attention), the young girl claims to be part of an all-girl street gang called the AOBs -- Any Other Brothers -- who masquerade as men when they commit their crimes.

Halili Knox and Dwight Huntsman (Photo by: Zabrina Tipton)

While Wilson's play is timely and forces the audience to confront the ambitious, manipulative techniques employed by someone who has convinced herself that "the end justifies the means," things did not go all that smoothly at the performance of The Story I attended. I should also note that an odd mishap (an actor who came onstage without realizing that his fly was still open) made my antenna go up, looking for other holes in Wilson's plot.

Back when I was writing about opera, some friends used to joke that Renata Scotto's alarming vibrato had grown so wide that you could probably drive a bus through it. Holes quickly start to appear in Yvonne's story which make Pat and Neil question her past. When some simple fact checking reveals that Yvonne is, indeed, a fraud, they are confronted with another, more personal challenge: Do they reveal what they know --  and destroy the career of another aspiring black journalist -- or do they keep the facts to themselves and let Yvonne self destruct?

Upon discovering that Yvonne has lied to him, Jeff doesn't hide his revulsion. When Yvonne claims that she gave him the one thing he couldn't buy, he is quick to reply that he could have bought "that," too.

Although the play starts off with a murder, the crime story eventually takes second place to one of newsroom intrigue, professional ethics, and the struggles of minority journalists to break through the glass ceiling. I was a little underwhelmed by the quality of Wilson's writing. Under Margo Hall's direction, a particular literary device which requires rival characters to utter the same words at the same time (albeit with different meaning), did not come off as well as it should have. Nor did Yvonne's cold and calculating character allow Ryan Peters to elicit much sympathy from the audience. 

Craig Marker's Jeff, Rebecca Schweitzer's Jessica, Halili Knox's Pat, and Kathryn Tkel's Latisha delivered strong portrayals of people on the periphery of Yvonne's ego who were there, in her mind, to be used or abused.

* * * * * * * * *

A much stronger play, cast, and production can be found over at the Ashby Stage, where the Shotgun Players have just unveiled their staging of David Hare's 1995 drama, Skylight. Once again, we encounter people who are hiding from the painful and inconvenient truths of their existence, feeding themselves and others a multitude of lies as a way to avoid taking responsibility for their more unsavory choices in life. There is, however, a major difference.

David Hare has written a magnificent play that is often breathtaking in the way its characters take turns peeling away the untruths to which their opponents have clung so ferociously. Under Patrick Dooley's deft direction, the action starts slowly and accelerates into the "go for the jugular" style familiar to audiences from Edward Albee's landmark Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In his director's notes, Dooley writes:
"This isn't the kind of play that requires research or dramaturgy or historical timelines or a family tree to follow. We've surrounded the stage with seating not just because we want to get you as close as possible to the action -- but also because there is something reminiscent of a sporting event in this story. Don't be surprised if you find yourself rooting for one character or the other or both. I'll also say that I believe the playing field is emblazoned with that most heavenly-- and often painfully elusive -- four-letter word: love."
As the play opens, we meet Kyra (Emily Jordan), a young schoolteacher living in a run-down flat. For six years she had been a married man's mistress, living with his family, helping to raise his children, and working as an employee in one of his businesses. Still, she had often told Tom (John Mercer) that if his wife, Alice, ever found out about their affair, she would be forced to leave. The fact that Alice was the person who had given her a break by hiring her when she first arrived in London has caused Kyra great pain. She is now trying to rebuild her life -- even if it means a long commute to work at a job which is emotionally draining.

On a cold winter night, Kyra gets an unexpected visit from Tom's son Edward (who has never understood why she left). He's been worried about his father's behavior ever since Alice died of cancer and, at 18, is fairly clumsy at expressing himself. Before he leaves, he does get Kyra to tell him the one thing that she misses from when they were all living together.

Soon after Edward departs, his father arrives. Tom is used to wielding his authority in any argument and is the kind of person who always has to be right. Having told himself some extremely macho lies throughout his life, he is unwilling and fairly unable to hear any of the truths with which Kyra  confronts him. As far as Tom is concerned, with Alice dead, there should be no reason why Kyra shouldn't want to move back in with him.

Unfortunately, whenever Tom doesn't get his way, his caustic tongue and need to triumph over any perceived adversary get the best of him. What follows is a rip-roaring night of cooking a spaghetti dinner onstage while tossing accusations back and forth. There is a bit of make-up sex, followed by the final unmasking of pretenses and stripping of Tom and Kyra's delusions of grandeur. A surprise ending after a long, hard, and cold night brings a ray of hope into Kyra's otherwise depressing future.

I don't think one could ask for a better pair of actors than Emily Jordan and John Mercer as Kyra and Tom. Watching the intensity of their work -- the beauty and detail of their characterizations -- offered the kind of theatrical reward one constantly seeks but doesn't always find. Carl-Hovick Thomas scored strongly as Tom's son, Edward.

Skylight is a stunning evening of intense, magnificently crafted personal drama (just be sure not to enter the theater on an empty stomach or else you may end up chewing the scenery). You can order tickets here.

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