Real life is not necessarily stage life. Take the difference between “Good Faith: Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department,” the static, pedantic talkfest having its world premiere at Yale Rep and “The Laramie Project,” that startling work about the murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. The structure is similar – interviews with those involved – but “Laramie” gave us insights into people, not just the dry, technical loquaciousness.of “Good Faith.”
The issues in the New Haven case revolve around what the city did with the results of a promotion exam. Instead of awarding advancement to the high scorers – all white or Hispanic, no blacks — the city, concerned that promoting only white men would cause problems, refused to certify the list, prompting legal action. The case, labeled “Ricci v. DeStefano” for Frank Ricci, one of the white firefighters, and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, ended up in the Supreme Court, which found in favor of the plaintiffs.
Commissioned by Yale Rep, Karen Hartman used interviews and court transcripts to build her play. She starts with a Burmese quotation: “The heart of another is one place we can never go.” One of the work’s many problems starts here since she rarely gets near her characters’ hearts. They talk a lot but reveal little about themselves.
A series of scenes subjects us to a lecture on fire fighting techniques, to a heated exchange between two firefighters, Mike and Tyrone, to a diatribe by Karen, the lawyer who argued the case before the Supreme Court, plus a final scene among Mike, Tyrone and Frank Ricci, the captain, later union head, who started it all.
Not content with rehashing legal and social complications, Hartman includes references to Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, James Baldwin, Black Lives Matter and Planned Parenthood (don’t ask), among many others. Her dialogue runs from “Institutional racism cannot be masked by the language of socioeconomic disparity” to the more naturalistic, “I’m not living high on the hog, you know. I got the kids, I’m keeping them busy, different activities. I’m doing what I can.” More of the latter and less of the former would have been appreciated.
In truth, these characters are more mouthpieces than anything else. Only occasionally does something approaching humanity appear. At one point, policemen are compared with firemen. The former “take” while the latter “save.” It’s a telling point, involving our actually caring about these first responders who risk their lives.
The estimable director Kenny Leon, cannot and does not do much with the material he’s been handed. There’s a lot of sitting around, little humor, less reality, which is ironic since it’s all based on fact. The cast –Laura Heisler, Ian Bedford, Billy Eugene Jones, Rob Demery and René Augesen — attack their roles with fervor.
But there’s little life here and audiences might do better reading the program’s summary of the case or taking its quiz with such questions as “How many fire stations are there in the city of New Haven?” or “When did the New Haven Fire Department promote an African American to the rank of Captain for the first time?”
That should keep you more engaged than what’s happening on stage.