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.”
Ricci 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.”
Asked 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.”
Reporter’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.