Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Good Faith: Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department
Yale Repertory Theatre
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule


Laura Heisler and Billy Eugene Jones
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Good Faith: Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department, in world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre through February 23rd, is based upon actual court cases as it fictionalizes real people. The core of it all is Ricci v. DeStefano (a mayor of New Haven), which eventually became a Supreme Court 5-to-4 decision. Karen Hartman, who attended Yale School of Drama, was commissioned to write the play and she spent four years researching. Directed by the esteemed Kenny Leon, the result is a presentation which is informative, educational and impressive. Sometimes, the drama escalates, while at other moments further edits could make Hartman's points even more cogent.

The production's first act occurs in Fall 2015, while Barack Obama was in office and, after intermission, continues in June, 2017, as Donald Trump has assumed the presidency. Names are mentioned. To her credit, playwright Hartman represents herself with the character of Writer (Laura Heisler). The actress, drawing personal analogy, is immediately warm, inviting and personable. She speaks amid a deep red backdrop of a simulated firehouse. Stephanie Osin Cohen's scenic design, bathing the stage with girders and frames, enhances the proceedings.

Ian Bedford plays firefighter Frank Ricci, a white man who feels wronged. Eventually, he becomes an administrator at the city's fire academy. Two black actors find themselves in a contentious dialogue during the first portion of the evening: Tyrone (Rob Demery) is a moderate Republican now, but he explains he was once a Democrat. He appears, finally, in full uniform as a Battalion Chief. Mike (Billy Eugene Jones), with a pedigree doctorate, becomes Director of Communications. René Augesen's primary role is that of an attorney, Karen, on the political right, who defends the mostly white group known as the "New Haven 20." She is sharp, tough and undeterred. That contingent felt that they should have been promoted since their exam scores merited that. They are vexed that an employment discrimination suit has denied them their rights. Diversity is not high on their list of priorities.

This is not a conventional play; it does adhere to its title since four conversations are the substance of the show. Thanks to actress Heisler as Writer, it begins with an animated, welcoming monologue. During the initial act, however, Tyrone and Mike find themselves in a talking head sequence as they sit in chairs and converse. The dialogue is sometimes intriguing and sometimes less so. They are important, as is the language, but briefer language might be more effective here. Things tend to run on and on through back-and-forth passages, however revelatory they may be.

The very best of Good Faith greets theatergoers early on during the second hour. Karen takes Writer on a short boat ride and the two women reveal much about their inner selves. Karen, anti-liberal, is not an individual without feeling. However swiftly Writer speaks, she also is a good listener. A bit of movement on stage, too, is appealing. Much of the rest of the production is portrayed in the mode of a documentary film. The parley between the women, though, breaks that paradigm and it succeeds beautifully. A bit later Mike's take and analysis of Archie Bunker, drawn from television's "All in the Family," is a short yet spot-on winner.

The court proceedings regarding Ricci v. DeStefano are complex and author Hartman wisely stays clear of attempting to specify details. That investigation is for another day. She provides enough explication. Fortunately, casting for this show is excellent and the five performers are convincing and precise. Live stage, as a vehicle for this script, proves to be a fine choice much, but not all of the time. It is not that the production feels static. Rather, its impact would be more penetrating with fewer words. We need precious white space and there is very little.

Director Leon, who has recently staged American Son and Children of a Lesser God on Broadway, gets the pulse of Hartman's text. The playwright brings much to contemplate. Since this a new play, one hopes it can be sculpted a bit more to fully realize its promise.

Good Faith: Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department, through February 23, 2019, at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St, New Haven CT. For tickets, call 203- 432-1234 or visit yalerep.org.


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