Rob Demery, Laura Heisler, Billy Eugene Jones, and Ian Bedford in the world premiere of GOOD FAITH by Karen Hartman, directed by Kenny Leon, Yale Repertory Theatre, 2019. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Lines of Fire

Good Faith: Four Chats about Race and the New Haven Fire Department unfolded last week on a bare stage at the Yale Rep, just minutes from the firehouses where two of the play’s three firefighters—Frank Ricci, Mike Briscoe and Tyrone Ewing—are still on call. Ricci, who is white, was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the city that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. Briscoe, who is black, was the sole plaintiff in a later lawsuit that was ultimately settled for money and an executive position in New Haven’s public safety communications department. Both cases concerned how the 2003 exam that determined which firemen would be promoted might have favored white test-takers in its design, a concern that prompted the city to nullify the test’s results.

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More than a decade later, the play finds both men at the top of their respective hierarchies—Frank as battalion chief and union president, Mike as director of the city’s 911 call center—and fully engaged in the life-and-death requirements of their work. Frank (Ian Bedford) is first seen lecturing a room full of recruits while footage of a building enshrouded in smoke plays behind him. “When we vent, we are going to vent close to the fire. Open one window. Look. Are things getting better or worse?” Mike (Billy Eugene Jones) later describes his own work as a dispatcher in terms that suggest a nostalgia for his old job. “I get that call on the radio. I get that text message, I shoot right into the center. I’m at my desk, but my mind is at the fire.”

The play makes clear that while the arguments about merit and opportunity that brought both men to their positions were settled via the legal system, they weren’t resolved on a personal level. And it’s that arena in which the play’s arguments—the “four chats” of the subtitle—reside, enacted with the astounding illusion of both conviction and spontaneity by five actors, three in dual roles. They take place on simple metal chairs, toted from one end of the stage to another to occupy a Thimble Islands porch, the Greek Olive diner and Frank’s office. The actors lean energetically forward in those chairs to engage, and they abandon the chairs to strenuously object. A geometrical steel and aluminum backdrop, spotlit red, suggests half-raised firehouse doors and doubles as a rear projection screen for intertitles, providing a kind of institutional structure from which the passionate voices that are the life of the play can spring forth.

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The most riveting of the arguments takes place in the restaurant scene between Mike and Tyrone (Rob Demery), sparring across a political divide over where to direct their energies as black civil servants in a racially charged climate. They had handled their non-promotions differently, with Mike choosing to use the legal system to change what he argues is racial bias embedded in ostensibly race-neutral policy—the weighting of the written portion of the exam over the oral portion—while remaining wary of being seen as either a victim or an opportunist. Tyrone, on the other hand, did not sue the city but eventually received his promotion, minus the back-pay and seniority granted the firefighters who did. Mike and Tyrone’s long friendship permits them to really duke it out—as they had apparently done at the real-life Greek Olive and evidently many times before that—raising their voices over each other and shading into personal insult without dissolving into rancor. Humor is shot through their dispute—in Mike’s gift for coining terms like “Mike-topia” and “legatic” (his adjective form of “legacy”), and in their lightly apologetic pivot back to restaurant decorum whenever the bemused waitress arrives on the scene.

A little self-awareness goes a long way when you’re arguing in a public place, but it goes much further in Good Faith, which is in part a play about its own making. The chats are re-enactments of conversations the playwright, Karen Hartman had set in motion; and having witnessed, participated, and recorded those conversations, she appears as a character—billed simply as Writer and played by Laura Heisler—with her own place in them. At one point, Mike asks her to include a grand statement in the play she’s getting ready to write him into, then proceeds with sly humor to dictate it.

Karen Lee Torre, Frank’s lawyer (René Augesen, who also plays the bemused waitress), addresses the question of her own portrayal with more seriousness. “Don’t mock me,” she says to the Writer. “Don’t mock my clients.” The play places the time of its own making in the period before and after the 2016 election, which charges Karen’s long, virtuosic rant about federal investigations of the police, affirmative action, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the Clintons—and provokes pained winces from the Writer, who had just just shared her alarm over her mother’s vote for Donald Trump with the audience.

The play’s final meeting, between Mike and Frank, has little of the rhetorical grandeur of the prior ones but hangs in the air longer. It proceeds within a framework of conciliatory gestures, reminiscences about their old shift at the Goffe Street firehouse and expressions of admiration for the other that might also be a way of arguing one’s own case. When Frank tells Mike that Mike is smarter, he is also suggesting that Mike had scored lower on the written portion of the 2003 exam only because he hadn’t studied. With contained anguish, Mike suggests that the time to study during their shift was a luxury afforded to someone who could casually insist on it to his white union bosses. They retreat to silence, Frank to his work on an open laptop, then they try again from another angle, or from the same angle, unsure why the argument hadn’t landed the first time. The Writer explains to the audience that the real conversation lasted well over its one-hour allotted time, which indicates how much—and how admirably—the playwright, Hartman, has shaped the material but also how far some bridges have to go even when both parties are desperate to build one.

Good Faith: Four Chats about Race and the New Haven Fire Department
Yale Repertory Theater – 1120 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Through Saturday, February 23
(203) 432-1234…

Written by David Zukowski. Images photographed by Carol Rosegg and provided courtesy of the Yale Repertory Theatre.

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