- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

Journalists and writers have been making the news in recent years, not just reporting it. The shame parade began with the Janet Cooke scandal at The Washington Post in 1981, when Miss Cooke wrote a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict and won a Pulitzer for her efforts, until it was discovered the child Jimmy was a total fabrication.

Other fabulists hiding behind a byline have included Stephen Glass in 1998, Jayson Blair in 2003, and, most recently, writer James Frey, whose autobiography “A Million Little Pieces” turned out to be made up of a gazillion white lies and made a fool out of Oprah Winfrey, who championed the memoir in her popular book club.

The Cooke scandal and the motivations of unethical reporters are the basis of Tracey Scott Wilson’s forceful newsroom whodunit, “The Story,” which is receiving an almost libelously fascinating production at the African Continuum Theatre under direction of David Charles Goyette.

The audience sits on all four sides of the stage, serving, in effect, as judges at a journalistic boxing match. Production values for “The Story” are minimal, only the platform stage and a couple of chairs on rollers. Mr. Goyette keeps the action at a dizzying pace by having the cast constantly in motion — as if their swirling bodies are a metaphor for a story spinning out of control right in front of your eyes.

The tale-spinner in question is Yvonne Robinson (Chinasa Ogbuagu), an ambitious Ivy League black reporter for the Washington Daily itching to get in the Metro section. She sees Outlook as a newspaper ghetto presided over by black editor Pat (Jewell Robinson), who fought hard to get where she is, and rival reporter Neil (KenYatta Rogers), who views Yvonne as “an uncertain sister.”

Tired of writing puff pieces about community centers, Yvonne stumbles upon a career-making story. A girl from the ‘hood named Latisha (Mildred Langford), a self-taught brainiac who speaks four languages, also confesses to being part of a girl gang whose members commit crimes dressed like boys. Latisha blurts out that the gang was responsible for the murder of a white schoolteacher (Jason Stiles), who was in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong hour.

With the help of her boyfriend (Mr. Stiles), a white Daily editor, Yvonne goes over Pat’s head and gets her article printed in Metro. Fame and a promotion follow, and she is on top of the world until Neil starts snooping and uncovering holes in Latisha’s story and in Yvonne’s resume.

“The Story” compellingly delves into why a journalist would risk ruining a career by making up facts and details. For Yvonne, it is a thirst for notoriety and to be where the action is, but she also believes she deserves to be at a certain level in her career and personal life, and if it means lying to get there, well, so be it.

These amoral motivations are shocking enough, but Miss Wilson ups the stakes by adding a layer of racism. The Daily is a racist paper where black reporters and editors feel like tokens who are held to a different, higher standard than their white counterparts. With Yvonne, it gets even more cynical and embittered, as she exploits racial fears and preconceptions to rationalize her fabrications, knowing full well that most people are going to assume a ghetto girl like Latisha is guilty.

“The Story” presents a riveting, topical morality tale, but it is not without flaws. Miss Wilson’s script pours on the racism angle until the play nearly drowns in it, forcing the cast to utter bigoted screed that sounds less like natural dialogue and more like something scrawled on a placard. The cast makes the best of the often wooden dialogue, especially Miss Robinson as the ferociously territorial Pat and the silkily glib Miss Ogbuagu, who gives us an Yvonne who seems to believe everything that comes out of her mouth. Mary C. Davis also sets your nerves on edge as the grieving, tightly wound widow of the murdered teacher.

Miss Wilson’s play also ends abruptly, leaving the audience hanging with numerous questions. Still, “The Story” pulls you in with its sensational treatment of journalists who never let facts get in the way of a good story.

***

WHAT: “The Story” by Tracey Scott Wilson

WHERE: Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 26.

TICKETS: $20 to $30

PHONE: 202/399-7993

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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