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'Above the Fold' stories might not be all above board at the Pasadena Playhouse

Taraji P. Henson plays a reporter who wants to get her stories "Above the Fold."
By Jim Cox.

Above the Fold

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It might make you feel old to realize that the younger generations don't read newspapers and may never know the meaning of "Above the Fold," but that's partially what this production at the Pasadena Playhouse is about.

For those unfamiliar with the term, "above the fold" refers to stories in a broadsheet newspaper that are important enough to occupy the upper half of the front page. When the newspaper is folded, these stories are visible and meant to entice people to buy the newspaper.

Now, you can have your news delivered to your email and some news sources have algorithms to select stories that will appeal to you based on your geographic location, shopping and reading habits. In other cases, you can select sections or topics that you want specially delivered to your email.

In Bernard Weinraub's play, an ambitious light-skinned black woman, Jane (Taraji P. Henson who received an Oscar nomination for playing Brad Pitt's mother in the 2008 "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), is finishing up a piece on a trendy restaurant in Harlem and talking to her editor Marvin (Arye Gross). Marvin isn't "negative," he's "cautious." They are working at some prestigious New York broadsheet and are under the whims of the big boss, whom we never see, but they refer to as "Bowtie." Jane isn't interested in being cautious; she wants to get her name on the masthead.

Bowtie is sending Jane down to a university town in the South to help bolster the congressional run of an old friend, Lorne (Mark Hildreth). It's an assignment that won't improve her public profile, but might ingratiate her to Bowtie. This small town district attorney has decided to put off his campaign because of a potentially explosive case: A black college student who is a working mother of two was gang-raped by 20 frat boys.

Jane smells a good story, one that might give her the edge she needs to compete with another reporter for a highly desirable overseas assignment in the war zones of Afghanistan or Iraq. She twists Lorne around her finger and gets some exclusive material. He asks for her help because, after all, he's not used to talking to reporters from the big city.

Lorne will get over that problem and it becomes a serious question of who is helping whom. Jane's story makes the front page, above the fold and that's before Jane has even met the victim, Monique (Kristy Johnson) and the rich college boys (Kristopher Higgins, Joe Massingill and Seamus Mulcahy).

You might sigh when the first scenes go by predictably enough, but Weinraub has written a smart script and director Steven Robman leads us into uncertainty. None of the characters are villains and none of them are saints. They all walk somewhere in between. Here the problem isn't greed, but ambition.

Henson's Jane is sometimes a bit awkward while Johnson's Monique seems to transform too easily from a small town girl to one with big time prospects. You also have to wonder that Jane isn't on Twitter and some tweeting offenses don't occur.

Playwright Weinraub was raised in New York and once worked as a copy boy for the New York Times. He rose to become a reporter, traveling to Vietnam, London, India and Washington, D.C. He covered political campaigns of Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan and Jessie Jackson. Moving to Los Angeles in 1990, to cover the movie business, Weinraub eventually left journalism to become a playwright. "Above the Fold" is his second play, but he obviously knows the business of journalism.

Jeffery P. Eisenmann's scenic design includes an oversized cellphone hovering over head and a TV screen with live feed. Before the show and during intermission, we were able to watch some Sochi Olympic coverage. The world has certainly changed and very few people sit glued to their TV alone. I usually watch TV while at my computer and who hasn't seen or known someone who can't have a conversation without looking at their cellphone. The art of conversation may be lost as we are faced with a constant barrage of information, information that comes to us instantaneously and much, much faster than a newspaper can provide by traditional means.

Newspapers once rushed to give their audience news, with morning and evening editions and even special editions. Then, newspapers had to compete with TV. Some survived and others did not.

It's no secret; newspapers are in crisis mode. Yet the story told here is something to consider when reading or listening to any news. Quick results, tough competition and ambition can mean that the kind of news we do get isn't well-researched and ethical questions may abound. How many mistakes are being made and just what will a news agency do to save face?

"Above the Fold" continues at the Pasadena Playhouse until February 23, 2014. The Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. The performance schedule is Tuesday through Friday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are available by calling The Pasadena Playhouse at 626-356-7529 or by visiting The Pasadena Playhouse Box Office, Tuesday – Sunday from 1:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. during non-performance dates. On performance dates the Box Office is open Tuesday – Saturday from 1:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, visit www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.

Weinburg will appear on panel discussions after the play on Tuesday talkbacks.

Tuesday, February 11th - Journalism & Integrity

Playhouse Mainstage
Immediately Following the 8:00 p.m. Performance
Moderator:

Fanshen Cox - co-curator, MixedRootsStories.org
Panelists:

Marty Kaplan - Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society and Director of the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
Patt Morrison - Writer/Columnist, Los Angeles Times
Bernard Weinraub - Playwright/Former New York Times Reporter

Tuesday, February 18th - The 24-Hour News Cycle and Decline of Print Media

Playhouse Mainstage
Immediately Following the 8:00 p.m. Performance
Moderator:
Marc Cooper - Associate Professor, USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism

Panelists:

Zach Behrens - Editor in Chief of Blogs, KCETLinks
Joe Matthews - California & Innovation Editor, Zocalo Public Square
Lionel Rolfe - Writer (San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Psychology Today)
Bernard Weinraub - Playwright/Former New York Times Reporter
Both discussions will begin immediately following the shows.