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STAGE REVIEW

Compelling 'Story' digs deep into politics of race and class

Yvonne is a young reporter eager to make it big. But, she'd like you to know, she does not want to be thought of as a young black reporter eager to make it big.

This makes her new job a mixed blessing. She has been hired by an urban newspaper in an unnamed city to report for the Outlook section, which is geared to writing positive stories about minorities. She'll put her time in at Outlook, where Pat, an Afrocentric editor, looks down on her assimilationist ways, while dreaming of Metro, where her white boyfriend is an editor. But when a good story comes her way, she's not about to let facts get in the way of it.

This is the basis of ''The Story," Tracey Scott Wilson's Kesselring Prize-winning 2004 play, which is fueled by the Janet Cooke scandal at the Washington Post, though the play is more interesting for its dissection of race and class divisions in society than as a depiction of the internal workings of a newspaper.

The play premiered at New York's Public Theater in a joint production with the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, where it later played. The Zeitgeist Stage Company production gets all the meat off the bone of Wilson's tale of the repercussions that follow when a white man is shot in a black neighborhood. There just isn't quite enough spice to make it a savory meal.

David J. Miller, Zeitgeist's artistic director, resident director, and set designer, knows how to use the small Plaza Black Box Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts as well as anybody. Here he covers the floor and walls with newspaper clippings while staging the play between two parallel desks, one belonging to the Outlook editor and the other to Yvonne's boyfriend. This allows for fast-paced delivery of Wilson's clever dialogue, which bounces between the parties at Outlook and Metro.

Miller has also done an excellent job in the past of showcasing black and Latino talent in the area, and he has assembled an admirable if somewhat unseasoned ensemble here, too. Some of the acting is strong, particularly that of Nydia Calon as Yvonne, though she doesn't have the ''bourgie" accent quite down.

But Wilson's characters get by more on the strength of her dialogue than on her characterizations, which are thin. Both the white trust-fund Metro editor and the black Outlook editor who was once the paper's only black reporter seem like types, not people. While their actions are predictable in terms of plot, they're not believable in terms of how people, never mind journalists, behave. And the racial politics here are poisoned beyond recognizability. The white editor, for example, is terrified of people finding out about his relationship with Yvonne because it will damage her standing at Outlook.

At Long Wharf, charismatic actors on a relatively large proscenium stage hid part of that artificiality. Small spaces add intimacy, but when the emotions don't seem real and the lines are delivered by actors who haven't fully blossomed, the artificiality is only heightened.

The new production does serve Wilson's thematic concerns relating to the way the press deals with minorities -- both how they're covered and how they're treated within a newspaper. In ''The Story" and in fact, the media primarily respond to bad news, such as the murder at the heart of the play.

Wilson is also skillful at describing the pressures on middle-class blacks as they try to make it in a world where white people have made the rules and still hold most of the power. The conflict between Yvonne and the Outlook editor, over where African-Americans stand at the newspaper and in the world beyond is the best part of the play and production.

The story behind ''The Story" is one worth telling. The articulation just needs to be clearer.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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