Three white North Carolina college frat boys accused of gang-raping an African-American stripper provide the incendiary framework for Above The Fold, Bernard Weinraub’s bracingly acidic look at politics circa 2014, race relations in today’s South, and print journalism in an increasingly cyber age—the World Premiere latest from the Pasadena Playhouse.
Person Of Interest TV star Taraji P. Henson (Oscar nominated for her performance as Queenie in The Strange Case Of Benjamin Button) stars as Jane, an up-and-coming reporter for a major East Coast daily (think the New York Times, though the newspaper in question is never named) dreaming of a Middle East assignment that could lead to regular bylines “above the fold.”
In the meantime, Jane’s immediate boss Marvin (Arye Gross) has dispatched the reporter to an unnamed Southern college town, one with a primarily white student body amidst a mostly black populace, to cover a congressional race pitting white prosecutor Lorne (Mark Hildreth) against a front-running African-American female opponent.
Jane’s arrival down South happens to coincide with a story so big, so important, that Lorne has decided to suspend campaigning despite only days remaining before the election, the better to build a case against Victor (Kristopher Higgins), Bobby (Joe Massingill), and Eric (Seamus Mulcahy), the privileged fraternity brothers whom single mom/exotic dancer Monique (Kristy Johnson) has accused of beating and raping her.
Though Monique turns out to be a hot mess if there ever was one, and despite a story whose details seem to keep changing hour by hour, reporter and stripper bond over heritage and shoes (Monique loves Jane’s pricey high heels so much that the newswoman makes her a gift of them), and sooner than you can say “breaking news,” Jane’s reports have made it to the paper’s front page, scooped the online media, and provided the print journal with precisely the circulation boost that could propel the Editor-In-Chief best known as “Bow Tie” to give Jane the overseas assignment she so longs for. That New York City Jane and Southern gentleman Lorne seem to be hitting it off on a personal level is icing on the cake for the ambitious reporter.
Before long the entire country is abuzz with stories of Monique’s heroic struggle to make a life for her fatherless children, even if it means working nights as a “dancer,” along with angry denunciations of the affluent white frat boys who used both themselves and a broomstick to leave their victim bruised and beaten. A photo of Bobby, broomstick raised, face distorted by apparent racial hatred, is all that’s needed to turn the nation against the trio of accused rapists and make Monique the media flava of the month.
Then Jane interviews the three college students, and discovers not the plantation scions she’s been expecting but the sons of blue collar parents who not only insist that the charges against them are bogus, they provide credible evidence to that effect. At the same time, Jane begins to wonder if Lorne’s decision to suspend campaigning may actually be a craftily conceived campaign strategy, one that appears to be reaping considerable rewards in the polls.
With this radically revised view of the case she’s been covering, imagine Jane’s dismay when Marvin informs her that the newspaper has no intention of switching sides and orders her to stick to the story she’s been writing, that of a powerless black victim waging David-vs.-Goliath battle against three white brutes.
With five decades of news experience under his belt, playwright Weinraub gives Pasadena Playhouse-goers the kind of edge-of-your-seat drama sure to have audiences talking during intermission and continuing the debate post curtain calls. Arriving during Black History Month, Above The Fold reminds us of a not-so-distant past in which white-on-black rape was a day-to-day occurrence south of the Mason-Dixon Line, one whose perpetrators inevitably got off scot-free. At the same time, the playwright steers clear of any simplistic “black-and-white” approach in favor of more complex shades of gray. And though Weinraub’s journalistic career dates back to the mid-1960s, his awareness of this Facebook-Twitter-Reddit Internet age makes Above The Fold very much of the 2010s, reality TV references and all.
Director Steven Robman keeps things moving at a breakneck pace, aided and abetted by Adam Blumenthal’s flashy lighting, Cricket S. Myers’ electric sound design, and Jason H. Thompson’s state-of-the-media projection design on scenic designer Jeffery P. Eisenman’s ingeniously conceived canvas, Dana Rebecca Woods’ pitch-perfect costumes and Carol F. Doran’s expert wig and hair design completing an all-around first-rate design package. (What a shame, then, that the center-stage projector burned out mid-Opening Night.)
A stunning Henson is not surprisingly the play’s linchpin, and a sensational one at that, anchoring us firmly on Jane’s side from the reporter’s first entrance, with an equally splendid Johnson matching her every step of the way in the play’s flashiest and arguably most complex role. Gross and Hildreth provide terrific support as the two men in Jane’s life, while the perfectly cast trio of Higgins, Massingill, and Mulcahy make the most of their briefer but no less significant roles, a particularly fine Higgins lucking out with the meatiest of the three.
Deborah Aquila, CSA, and Tricia Wood, CSA are casting directors. Mary Michele Miner is production stage manager, Susie Walsh stage manager, Joe Witt general manager-production manager, Brad Enlow technical director, and Kristen Hammack company manager.
Like the Pasadena Playhouse’s recent 12 Angry Men, Above The Fold sheds thought-provoking light on black-and-white relations in today’s America, with the added allure of a behind-the-scenes look at 21st-Century journalism and politics. Marvelously acted, directed, and designed, the latest from Sheldon Epps and company is a crowd-pleasing (if not exactly “feel good”) dramatic hit.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
February 5, 2014
Photos: Jim Cox