Ricci: Who’s That “Frank” Guy Onstage?

David Yaffe-Bellany, Carol Rosegg PhotosCarol Rosegg Photo

Frank Ricci looked up to watch himself onstage — and found a big bald-shaven guy speaking with a Brooklyn accent.

New Haven’s pathbreaking firefighter was sitting in the audience of a preview performance of Good Faith: Four Chats about Race and the New Haven Fire Department, which officially opened Thursday night at Yale Repertory Theatre.

Ricci is a main character in the play, which focuses on a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court Case decision (in a case entitled Ricci v. DeStefano) that changed the rules for when government can toss out the results of promotional exams based on how blacks and Hispanics scored on them.

Ricci said he didn’t recognize the character named Frank, played by actor Ian Bedford, as himself. Even if “90 percent” of his scripted lines rang true.

“It was surreal,” Ricci said in an interview this week on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” program. “It was like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

For starters, Ricci has hair. And he speaks in a New Haven accent.

Plus, unlike Bedford’s Frank and other characters in the play — but like people who live here in real life — Frank Ricci pronounces the name of our city “New Haven.” Not “New Haven.”

Costume sketches by Beatrice Vena; File PhotosRicci said he didn’t consider the physical and voice alterations an accident: He believes that, despite the best attempts to portray him and his ideas fairly, playwright Karen Hartman ultimately turned him into a caricature.

He had worried about that when he agreed to spend time with Hartman during the four years she spent writing the play and trying to understand all sides of the complicated issues at play in Ricci v. DeStefano. He praised Hartman for her openness in discussions and for the time she took observing him teaching class at the fire training academy.

And indeed, Ricci comes off as a largely sympathetic character in the play. So does Karen Torre, the conservative attorney who represents the “New Haven 20” firefighters fighting the city in the lawsuit. Both in a previous WNNH “Dateline” interview and in the play itself, Hartman has been open about her liberal leanings and the bias she brought to the project, and her determination to let all sides have their say in the interest of promoting dialogue about tough race and class issues.

Ricci’s family thought he overall came across well in the play. Audience-goers get a detailed rendition of the argument on both sides of both the specifics of the Supreme Court case as well as the larger debate over whether it makes more sense to focus on policy and structural change or on individuals in seeking to create opportunities for advancement in government work.

“She was fair 90 percent” in her portrayal of him, Ricci concluded.

The script is based on transcripts of interviews with Ricci, who is white, and two black firefighters, Capt. Tyrone Ewing and retired firefighter Michael Brisco. (Torre did not allow Hartman to record their conversations.) Hartman used some direct language of the interviewees in the script, then added some of her own.

“It’s not only what you say,” Ricci observed, but “how you say it. And what you don’t say.”

That observation is most relevant in the play’s climactic scene, when “Frank” (Ricci) and “Mike” (Briscoe) confront each other directly in a raw, heartfelt debate over what happened in the testing process as well as the larger question about structural versus individual approaches to racial and social justice.

In that scene, Hartman takes a side (as, Ricci acknowledged, she has every right to do as the playwright). Briscoe emerges as the voice of the playwright. He makes the play’s final plea for justice with rousing oratory, the way, say, Humphrey Bogart (as attorney Andrew Morton) brought home the social vision of scriptwriter Taradash Ricci in the climactic scene of Nicholas Ray’s 1949 film Knock On Any Door.

Ricci does get to make his case in the scene before Briscoe’s triumphant speech. But he’s also shown looking at his computer rather than focusing on Briscoe when Briscoe makes the crucial arguments in forceful, persuasive tones.

The scene also has Ricci repeatedly using the racist epithet “kid” to refer to Briscoe, and faint-praising him as “articulate.” In other words, it seeks to present him as racist. The argument concludes with Ricci, who has been arguing that the New Haven 20 succeeded because of merit, asking Briscoe, who did not make the cut on the test, how to spell the word “loose.” In other words, the script seeks to undercut his claim to have succeeded over Briscoe on merit.

Asked about those details, Ricci didn’t deny them. Or confirm them. He said he can’t remember if he had used the word “kid” or “articulate” in that fateful conversation.He hadn’t known that black fatigue with “articulate” has penetrated white liberal consciousness since 2007.

Nor, Ricci said, did he recall whether or not he had looked at his computer screen while Briscoe made his arguments.

“If I did,” Ricci said, it was because he felt Briscoe was talking “in circles.”

Paul Bass PhotoAsked about that at the party at the Study following Thursday night’s opening, playwright Hartman said she accurately quoted Ricci saying “kid” and “articulate” and accurately portrayed him looking off at his computer. She said she does have the recording of the real-life encounter between Ricci and Briscoe, and drew from that. 

Overall, Ricci said in the WNHH interview, he has no regrets about having participated despite concerns about liberal bias.

“We have to talk with each other,” he said. “We have to communicate. I knew it was going to be slanted with leftist views…. I wanted to move the narrative.”

He said he had hoped for a little more dramatic action in the talk-heavy play. “I was kind of hoping,” he said of watching his character, “that I would start singing.”

Carol Rosegg PhotoReporter’s additional editorial comments: I believe Hartman and actor Bedford succeeded in capturing former Mayor John DeStefano brilliantly in a ten-second, three-word role in Good Faith. (I wont’ spoil it for you, but it’s a hoot for anyone who has watched him up close over the years.) ... I came to appreciate the power of the script and the acting by seeing the play twice. The first time I had to get past trying to jibe all the characters onstage with the people I know in real life. I found the play engrossing and challenging the second time around, when I could experience it as a play-watcher rather than a fact-checking editor. It succeeded in challenging the way I have always viewed the people and events involved.  ...  The only part I still couldn’t get past the second time was the pronunciation of “New Haven” — and a couple of snotty put-downs of the city, such as the “joke” that someone actually couldn’t “wait” to return here after being away for a while.

Click on the Facebook Live video below to watch the full interview with Frank Ricci on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven.”

Click here for a story about a previous interview with playwright Karen Hartman, and below for the video of that interview:

 


Click below to watch Artistic Director James Bundy congratulate the actors and Yale Rep crew and the play at the opening-night after party at The Study.

 

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posted by: yalegrad on February 8, 2019  1:05pm

The play looks great!

In the additional comments the word you are looking for is Jive or Jibe, not Gibe.

[Paul: Thanks for the correction!]

posted by: cellardoor on February 8, 2019  2:13pm

The real-life characters on whom the story is based,  playwright,  producers, director, and actors all deserve credit for valiant work.  This humane play sheds light on everything that is both inspiring and confounding about life in our microcosmic New Haven.  Cuts certainly are in order, and would have clarified the story without sacrificing well-drawn characterizations.  And whoever wrote the program timeline did a great job!  We lived through these events, and learned things last night.

posted by: YancyC on February 8, 2019  4:15pm

At the Wednesday performance, my wife and I sat behind a retired NHFD firefighter and his wife.  It was interesting to talk with them during the intermission and after the play.  He was not one of the 20, but articulated how everything is political in the City of New Haven.

We found the play powerful.  Bedford’s portrayal of Ricci was of a decent man trying to do the right thing in very difficult circumstances, whether training recruits or fighting what he saw as a betrayal by the City.  As was pointed out to us later, the plaintiffs took great risks personally and financially in going to court.

As usual at the Rep, the cast is great.

posted by: Marion on February 8, 2019  4:15pm

White guys refer to other white guys as “kids” all the time unless the guy being referred to is old. Briscoe was not old. It is both wrong for you to declare as fact that “kid” is a racist term no matter what, and to tag Frank Ricci as racist if he said “kid.”  As for use of the word “articulate,” it is racist only in certain contexts.  Ricci did not say that Briscoe was “one of those articulate black guys,” which is racist. Joe Biden was surely racist when he said that Barack Obama was “an articulate black man” and that he was “clean.”  But merely observing that a fellow firefighter is articulate or articulately argues his case is not racist. You use a harsh and rigid PC brush here and you should apologize to Ricci and his family. You’re better than this, Paul.

As for claiming that Briscoe’s ability to spell a single word that Ricci had misspelled “undercuts” Ricci’s claim that he was promoted over Briscoe on merit, well that is beyond absurd.  The two men took exams to qualify for a command position in a fire department, not a job as a newspaper editor. And you know full well that Ricci is dyslexic and thus sees some words (“lose” v. “loose”) differently than others. While on that topic, another reader commented below that you, yes YOU,  Paul Bass, misspelled the word “jibe” in this article. You corrected your error, and thanked the reader for pointing it out. And you ARE a newspaper editor. How do we all like THEM apples?  Just because the playwright used her dramatic skills to misleadingly and unfairly present Ricci in that way doesn’t mean you have to take it a step further.

[Paul: Thanks for the comment. I did not mean to suggest that Frank is racist. I was pointing out that the playwright made a choice to present him as racist in the play’s climactic scene. And that the choice to place the spelling question at that moment in the action was an attempt to cast doubt on the meritocracy argument.]

posted by: Marion on February 8, 2019  5:47pm

@Paul Bass. Appreciate your reply. Your take on what playwright Karen Hartman did is certainly noteworthy. If, as you believe she did, Hartman “made a choice to present Ricci as racist in the play’s climactic scene,” then shame on her for the indecency. She deserves to be shunned for it. . I’ve little doubt her fellow liberals over in the Yale Rep crew quarters are congratulating themselves on such a deftly-executed smear.

posted by: Noteworthy on February 8, 2019  7:45pm

They should have ended the play at Ricci’s Vermont vacation home with nice mountain views. Damn, you have to love New Haven taxpayers and the leaders who bleed them.

posted by: Andrew Giering on February 8, 2019  9:53pm

This article’s explanation of the correct pronunciation of our City’s name is an essential public service announcement and should be included in every Yale orientation from this day forward!

posted by: cellardoor on February 9, 2019  12:33am

@Marion, for what it’s worth I disagree with @PaulBass that Frank Ricci was portrayed by the playwright as racist.  Certainly he was shown as lacking insight, and maybe even interest,  for Briscoe’s point of view and own experience.  Also the “loose/lose” moment, and Ricci’s absorption at the computer screen was meant, I believe, to illustrate his own struggle with dyslexia,  and did not imply that he was unqualified for his job.  You’ll need to see the play to see what you think, and let us know.

posted by: AMDC on February 9, 2019  9:08am

Have not seen the play but the attempt to portray Ricci as a skin-headed , thug-looking type, with the Brooklyn accent to ring with echoes and connotations of the Italian mob is a slur directed at Italian Americans.  But no one cares about that.  It is OK to recreate the character as an ethnic caricature but it would not be acceptable to do so for other protected groups.  After reading about the play,  I think I will pass on seeing it and note that my reaction is based on information printed in this article.
PS—-  I do find NEW Haven almost as obnoxious as Nuh HA-ven…. it’s a tossup.

posted by: ShadowBoxer on February 9, 2019  7:47pm

The decision or negligence to give Ricci a NY accent was a major blunder and was noticeable immediately.  I suspect this was done AFTER the election of Trump.  The Archie Bunker-ization of Ricci was unfortunate b/c it dehumanized him, and thus made his worldview less relateable.  Had he spoken in a CT accent the entire tonal aspect to the play would have hit home better.

Other than that, the play is spot and I and I would highly recommend it.  One of the best ones I have ever scene there.

posted by: ShadowBoxer on February 9, 2019  7:53pm

@Marion

The kid comment hit me like a brick.  It was an artistic choice to leave it ambiguous and as white guy I don’t refer to anyone as kid.

The “lose” and “loose” was also obvious and evoked the image of a loose cannon, which is explosive which was also an artistic ambiguity.  The play ended on that theme of explosion. and the “lose” versus “loose” was artistic genius on many levels.

posted by: Marion on February 10, 2019  8:28am

@ShadowBoxer - Agree with you on the ethnic caricature of Ricci. I heard gripes about it from others who noticed it. As for the playwright’s political motive, her coming on stage wearing a “I’m With Her” Hillary t-shirt was a clue maybe? The closing scene aside, I think the play’s biggest deception is in its heavy focus on the “Briscoe” character and his “feelings” while never letting the audience know what others who closely followed this story know: Briscoe’s lawsuit over the exam was tossed out by a court as legally baseless, consisting largely of racial “rhetoric” and amounting to nothing more than a personal gripe about his test score. Yale Rep’s playbill also omits this fact in its description of Briscoe’s lawsuit, deceptively stating only that Briscoe “dropped his appeals.”  Hartman pushes her political message by suggesting the Briscoe side of the case was the meritorious one. To accomplish that meant keeping from the audience - and out of the Playbill - any inconvenient facts about it. For a play that purports to encourage “honest” discussion about race, more honesty about facts would have served that feigned purpose.

posted by: thecove on February 10, 2019  10:22pm

@noteworthy…Another “positive” comment eh?  So the guy has property in Vermont.  He’s earned it with countless hours and a deep dedication to public service.  Ever consider moving? You seem to dislike this city very much.

posted by: David Backeberg on February 11, 2019  10:59am

I also saw the play, and I agree with cellardoor that the scene illustrates Ricci’s dyslexia. There was a brief mention in the play that Ricci had the study materials for the testing textbooks on audio tape, and he would study by listening to the tapes while cleaning the firehouse, etc.

I certainly had learned plenty during the play I did not know before. Maybe I have more tolerance for ambiguity than the author of the review. Author can conclude from the overall arc of events that the 20 suing with the intent to get the ruling they received shows racist intent or you can conclude that they were fighting for their achievement to be appropriately recognized and compensated. And that achievement also resulted in minorities being promoted as well. I certainly thought the playwright did an excellent job of presenting opposing views, and admitting her perspective and bias. It’s difficult to collapse a decade plus of history into a few hours of a play, and certainly she had to make artistic decisions.

posted by: BranfordResident_2 on February 11, 2019  3:28pm

I’m surprised that no one has pointed out the correlation between literacy skills among African American males, the achievement gap between blacks and whites ,poor and wealthy, inner-city and suburban schools and their future academic successes.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/31/nyregion/study-black-white-achievement-gap-schools.html

https://gradelevelreading.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Young-Men-of-Color-and-the-Early-Reading-Gap.htm