At the end of Good Faith, three firefighters and a lawyer stand on stage.
“We fight the fire,” they tell the audience, one after the other.
By then the fire is a metaphor, the play moving from the concrete to the abstract. “Who will save you? Who will you save?”
Karen Hartman’s Good Faith: Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department opened Thursday night at the Yale Repertory Theatre on Chapel Street. It runs through Feb. 23.
The play asks a lot of questions. As the Writer (Laura Heisler) explains at the play’s beginning, Yale Rep commissioned Hartman to write a play based on the U.S. Supreme Court race-based hiring case of Ricci v. DeStefano, in which firefighters sued the city for not acting on the results of a promotional exam after the city found that top scorers on the exam were overwhelmingly and disproportionately white. The plaintiffs argued that the city was discriminating against its white firefighters by not promoting those who had scored highest on the exam. The city argued that the skewed results of the test suggested the test was flawed and couldn’t be used as a basis for promotion. The firefighters took the exam in 2003; in 2009, after successive lower courts had ruled in favor of the city, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the firefighters, by then dubbed the “New Haven 20,” in a 5-4 decision.
Depending on which side of the debate you’re on, the decision either weakened the cause of affirmative action or helped even the playing field. As with most Supreme Court cases, the story of Ricci v. DeStefano is long and convoluted. It’s summarized quickly in the play itself, which is fine, because in the end, it’s not really what Good Faith is about.
To write the play, Hartman spent four years extensively interviewing people who had been involved in the case. She gathered a lot of material about firefighting, about how the bureaucracy within the fire department works, about politics within City Hall, and about race relations in the city of New Haven.
In the end, she decided that her subjects’ words were what mattered. So Good Faith centers on four people involved directly in the case, here turned into characters: plaintiff Frank Ricci (Ian Bedford), his lawyer Karen Torre (René Augesen), and firefighters Mike Briscoe (Billy Eugene Jones) and Tyrone Ewing (Rob Demery).
We meet them as the Writer meets them, after the dust has settled on the case. Ricci is president of the firefighters union. Ewing is a battalion chief. Briscoe is the director of New Haven’s 911 communications center. And Torre has left the practice of law.
The blow-by-blow details of the legal fight itself have largely faded. The racial tensions the fight exposed are as tense as ever.
The play wears its own politics on its sleeve, thanks largely to the presence of the Writer, whom Heisler plays with an admirable mix of brains and guts, leavened with some boilerplate well-meaning white liberalism that the Writer increasingly realizes isn’t enough to really address the tough questions the case and the play raise. Heisler provides some of the play’s funniest and (intentionally) cringeworthy moments.
The first half of the play belongs to Jones and Demery, who as Briscoe and Ewing are given a long conversation about the deep complexities of being black in America that lets each actor bring out the incisive intellects in their subjects, the differing political and religious views that put an edge on the friendship between the men, and the abiding humor and understanding that keeps them together.
As attorney Torre, Augesen is given a long stretch in the second act that allows us to see how this brilliant woman takes a long journey from liberalism to conservatism. We see the difference between the Writer’s political beliefs, largely formed from received wisdom, and Torre’s, shaped through experience, even as they come to understand each other better by the conversation’s end.
That encounter stands in contrast to a final, climactic moment between Briscoe and Ricci, which leaves us questioning whether the personal bonds they created as firefighters, people who have put their lives on the line together, are enough to bridge the rift that the results of the case have opened between them.
As you may have guessed by now, Good Faith takes on a lot, all at once. Ultimately it doesn’t do too much more than dip its toe into the very deep water of racial tensions in the United States and their particular manifestations in New Haven.
But by giving us the language of Hartman’s interview subjects, the way the characters bounce off and talk over each other, yet sometimes connect, the play accurately conveys just how damn difficult it can be to talk about race, no matter whom we’re talking about it with. The conversations metastasize to engulf questions about wealth and poverty, about centuries-old inequities versus personal responsibility, about housing and schools, about who gets what job and why, and who lives where and why, and what on earth can be done about it all. The problems seem to loop back and fold in on themselves, tying us in knots until passions rise and tempers flare.
Good Faith brings to life the tensions in the national talk about race and makes a point about the inadequacy of the law to address grievances. Have we made progress, or has nothing changed? Will we ever find out how deep the roots of the problems go, or are their ends always buried deeper still, always out of reach? And what happens if we just keep digging? Do we reach the end, or just bury ourselves alive?