Can a landmark Supreme Court case rooted in New Haven translate into compelling theater?
Audiences will be the ultimate judges when Good Faith: Four Chats about Race and the New Haven Fire Department has its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven running Feb. 1-23. Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon (Broadway’s American Son, revivals of A Raisin in the Sun, Children of a Lesser God, Fences) stages the new production.
Yale Rep commissioned playwright Karen Hartman (The Book of Joseph) to develop a theater piece centering on a controversial labor law court case that began in New Haven in 2004 and went to the Supreme Court in 2009 in Ricci v. DeStefano. In a 5-4 decision, the high court ruled that the city violated the civil rights of a group of 20 firefighters — 19 white and one Hispanic — who were passed over for promotion in 2003.
The case was initially brought after the city declined to promote the 20 firefighters after they had passed a test for promotions to management positions. City officials claimed that because none of the African-American firefighters who took the test scored high enough to be considered for the positions, going ahead with the promotions would put the city in danger of being sued by minority firefighters.
But don’t expect a dry, legalese-filled drama here, even if the case played in many judicial halls until it reached the nation’s highest court. Good Faith instead is “inspired” by the landmark labor case and is described as “an imaginative response to transcripts, interviews, and the many histories of New Haven.”
“I feel like I was playing journalist when I was doing the interviews,” Hartman says during a break in rehearsals when the new work was still getting tweaked.
The play follows in the tradition of contemporary, issue-based, non-fiction drama such as The Laramie Project, The Exonerated or works by Anna Deavere Smith such as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. And like those plays, it uses many of the leading figures’ own words in the telling of the events which took place.
“When I started reading about the case, it seemed to me that the cross-currents in this case are these deeply American arguments about fairness, justice, social mobility, race and class,” says Hartman, who graduated from the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama in 1997. “That’s what you look for in a play, what [playwright Henrik] Ibsen called ‘great reckonings in little rooms.’ ”
Hartman says structuring the play was “a monster” of a challenge because there were many cases over many years. “But in the sense that this happened in a small city, it’s got everything that America is dealing with in this case.”