“Good Faith: Four Chats about Race and the New Haven Fire Department”

Yale Repertory Theatre

            Yale Repertory Theatre’s world premiere play, “Good Faith: Four Chats about Race and the New Haven Fire Department,” by Karen Hartman, is a solid example of journalistic reporting transferring into interesting theatre.  Bringing to mind some of the works of Anna Deavere Smith, such as “Fires in the Mirror,” the playwright of “Good Faith” uses interviews, more or less verbatim, from individuals involved with the subject of the play, namely the case of “Ricci v. DeStefano.”

This case concerned a group of New Haven firemen (called the “New Haven Twenty” and led by Frank Ricci) making a case against the mayor of New Haven, John DeStefano, that they were the victims of reverse racism and that they were discriminated against because they were Caucasian.  Significantly, they ultimately won this case before the Supreme Court.

Such a thorny and volatile subject as this has been given a well-modulated staging by director Kenny Leon, and features strong performances by the cast of five actors.  The playwright isn’t afraid to inject some effective humor in “Good Faith,” as well, without minimizing any of the people (or what they said) who are dramatized in the show.

In the program for the play, there is a timeline that details exactly when different events happened, concerning the individuals involved with the court case, and it is recommended that you study this timeline before seeing the show.  And, if Karen Hartman’s play “Good Faith,” at Yale Repertory Theatre, is not wholly successful, it proves, nonetheless, to be engrossing and it certainly holds one’s attention throughout.

The period of time explored is roughly between 2003 and 2017, though it is stated in the program that the first act is mainly set in October of 2015, while the second half is set in June of 2017.  To form the content of her play, “Good Faith,” playwright Karen Hartman interviewed a number of people involved with and/or affected by the court case, though the show is basically made up of four separate scenes.

Within an impressive set, designed by Stephanie Osin Cohen, which brings to mind the look and feel of a fire station (fine work also by lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge), the play actually begins on an amusing note, specifically with the character called “Writer” (extremely well-performed by Laura Heisler) speaking directly to the audience.  This opening monologue is full of wit and self-deprecating humor and it helps draw the audience into the play.

Also helping to keep “Good Faith” consistently interesting are the other fine performers in the show, some of whom are called on to portray more than one individual.  Rene Augesen is quite wonderful as Karen Torre, the local lawyer who took on the discrimination case of the “New Haven Twenty” and, despite much opposition, won the case before the Supreme Court.  In her scenes opposite Laura Heisler’s “Writer,” Augesen presents Karen as quite a formidable woman, unafraid of speaking her mind without any concern of controversy.

Figuring into the play, as well, is the impressive Ian Bedford, who plays a number of different roles in the show, but stands out most as the plaintiff of the case, Frank Ricci. Ricci comes across as a no-nonsense guy and quite a powerful leader and fireman.  His last scene, opposite Mike Briscoe, an African American fireman and colleague, portrayed terrifically by Billy Eugene Jones, is filled with tension and a sea of mixed emotions.

Still, the most entertaining and stand-out sequences in “Good Faith” are between Jones’ Mike and his friend and fellow fireman, Tyrone Ewing, played enjoyably by Rob Demery. Tyrone is also African-American and the two men were chosen by the playwright because they were close friends, but disagreed about nearly everything.  The back and forth conversations between Mike and Tyrone are quite dynamic and give the play its most riveting moments.

If there is a misstep in “Good Faith,” it is the playwright and director’s decision, at the conclusion of the show, to try and force the content and “chats” in the play into something more significant than they really are.  Still, for a world premiere play, “Good Faith” at Yale Repertory Theatre is quite skillful and refreshingly well-balanced and one is curious what further work Karen Hartman will inject into her show after its run at Yale Repertory Theatre has concluded.

“Good Faith: Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department” continues performances at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, CT through February 23, 2019.  For tickets, please visit www.yalerep.org or call the box office at 203-432-1234.

Photo: (L-R): Rob Demery, Laura Heisler, Billy Eugene Jones, and Ian Bedford

Photo by Carol Rosegg

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