NEW HAVEN — Frank Ricci, a veteran firefighter, was apprehensive when he heard that Yale Repertory Theater was planning a play based on the lawsuit that bore his name — a legal case bitterly fought all the way to the Supreme Court. “But I figured it would be in my best interest to participate,” he said recently, “so at least part of our story could be told.”
He was referring to conversations that form the basis of “Good Faith: Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department,” which begins performances Feb. 1 at the theater — and may well rekindle debates that divided this city.
Mr. Ricci, a battalion chief and union leader who has been on the New Haven force for 21 years, suspected the play would have a liberal slant, but was untroubled. “In the end,” he said, “we still won the case.”
In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-to-4 decision, that the city violated the civil rights of a group of largely white firefighters, including Mr. Ricci, when it set aside the results of a 2003 exam for promotion in which they had scored highest.
Administrators, including the mayor at the time, John DeStefano Jr., argued they were simply trying to comply with a federal law that views job requirements like promotional tests with suspicion when they disproportionately rule out minority applicants.
After a suggestion by a Yale law professor that the case, and its implications under a Trump administration, could make compelling theater, Yale Rep commissioned the playwright Karen Hartman to write about it for the stage.
Rather than a courtroom drama, she took a documentary theater approach, à la “The Laramie Project,” drawing on interviews with the actual participants in events. Her play joins a growing list of research-based dramas dealing with race and class in America, from Anna Deavere Smith’s monologues to Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat.”
In “Good Faith,” Ms. Hartman said she aimed to shed light on real lives caught between competing legal principles. “For the people who were involved in this case,” she said, “it disrupted and derailed their lives, certainly for a time and in some ways for all times. This was so divisive. It’s hard for people to talk about it, still.”
The play also allowed her to talk about race in a small American city “with big city issues.” New Haven’s population of 130,000 is 34 percent black, 31 percent white and 27 percent Hispanic.
Over four years of research, Ms. Hartman — who lived in New Haven in the ’90s while a graduate playwriting student at Yale School of Drama — sat in on training sessions at the fire academy, rode in fire trucks and hung out among first responders.
“The conversations were revelatory,” she said. “They were charged and real and honest in a way that I’ve never seen before in conversations about race. What I want the play to convey is the possibility of communication around race and fairness and, to some degree, class in an American city. Those are the big themes.”
The play is presented as a series of “chats” — Ms. Hartman’s deliberately chosen nonthreatening word — in the years following the verdict, centering mainly around four first-name-only characters: two African-American firefighters, a white firefighter and a white female lawyer, with a fifth character representing the playwright.
“I am, in a sense, the audience — someone trying to figure things out, following my nose and going with what was interesting to me,” Ms. Hartman explained.
She knew she would be initially seen as an outsider: a liberal white woman artist “swanning in with all of the assumptions that come with that,” and her expectations were not mistaken. But concern about how Ms. Hartman’s narrative will be presented came from both sides.
“If she doesn’t take advantage and understand these long-term stakes [of the case], that’s a lost opportunity,” said Robert Post, the Yale Law School professor who first suggested that the case could be theatricalized. “Race in America is not a question of melodrama. It’s a question of drama, which is to say complicated issues that are hard to understand.”
The play does not go into detail on the many trials and spinoff cases that ate up some 10 years, said Jennifer Kiger, director of new play programs at Yale’s Binger Center for New Theater, which helped in its development.
“But it does talk about race,” she added. “It does talk about discrimination. It does talk about the legal matters — but from a very personal point of view.”
Kenny Leon, the Tony Award-winning director who is staging “Good Faith,” feels those issues personally.
“As an African-American man living in America in 2019, it strikes me as a very important piece,” he said, connecting the lawsuit to “a desperate attempt of some in the country to diffuse this wave of diversity that is our future.”
Race and class divides go beyond the firehouse, according to Ms. Hartman, and the play also explores how members of elite liberal institutions show unconscious bias when making assumptions about merit. “That was a big thing that emerged,” she said.
The 2016 election of Donald Trump, whose victory depended on the anxiety of the white working class, led the playwright back to New Haven to continue her conversations.
“When you talk about diversity, a lot of times we’re highlighting the differences in people and not the things that are the same and that bring us together,” he said. “That’s how you move in a civil way forward in this country. You’ve got to listen and speak to people who look and sound different from you.”
He was among the firefighters invited to a reading before rehearsals last month. “Man, it was kind of cool,” he reported. “They are really my words that capture how I feel about certain things, and the fact that it is going to be in a play was interesting, intriguing, exciting even.”
Mr. Ricci, on the other hand, hasn’t yet seen the play. But he is dubious about the role of Yale. While he acknowledged that the university’s law school has produced conservative judges — “some great ones, too, like Clarence Thomas” — the drama school is another place entirely.
While “cautiously optimistic” about the play as a whole, he’s not hopeful about how he’ll be portrayed. He expects, he said, to be played as “the equivalent of Brett Kavanaugh on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ”
James Bundy, Yale Rep’s artistic director, said it is only through the difficult conversations enacted in the play that viewers can develop empathy with those on the other side of wrenching political issues. “For us to experience any change in our society that’s truly meaningful,” he said, “we’re going to have to work through the discomfort.”
In a divided city in a divided nation, will people approach each other with “good faith”? Ms. Hartman said the phrase was used by subjects on both sides of the fire department debate.
“The title is not quite ironic,” she said, “but aspirational. Everyone says they want to be working in good faith. The play asks: Can we?”