As a reporter covering Hollywood for the New York Times, Bernard Weinraub was amused whenever producers or studio executives were unable to remember the names of the screenwriters of their latest films.
"They would actually say, 'I'm not sure,' or 'A couple of people.' Very few of them actually knew who wrote the movie," Weinraub said. "It always cracked me up. It's such a collaborative process. Obviously, that never happens in the theater."
So when Weinraub retired from journalism in 2005 and began a second career as a playwright, he thought he would wield more clout than Hollywood screenwriters.
Well, maybe not....
"I mean, David Mamet has clout. Edward Albee has clout. I don't have clout," Weinraub deadpanned over lunch during rehearsals for his new play, "Above the Fold," which opens Feb. 5 at the Pasadena Playhouse.
"I was told early on that legally, under the rules, I have the power to veto an actor," Weinraub said. "The trouble with me, to be honest, is that I went to the tryouts and I liked every actor. So, then I realized, this is ridiculous.... I was not a good judge of anybody. I exercised absolutely no power."
Directed by Steven Robman, "Above the Fold" stars Oscar- and Emmy-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson as a journalist from a major northeastern newspaper who covers a racially explosive rape case in a Southern university town.
During rehearsals, Henson's character, Jane, and Monique (Kristy Johnson), a mother of two who earns spending money stripping, make compelling antagonists. Monique, who is African American, sets off a media frenzy when she claims she has been raped by three white frat boys during a private party where she had been hired to dance.
At first, they hit it off.
"Look at those shoes," Monique tells Jane. "Those are — money shoes. You've got to make money. You on TV."
"No, Monique," Jane replies. "I write for a newspaper. The TV people make money; we don't." She gives her stylish shoes to Monique and they seem to bond.
But the two women lock horns when troubling revelations throw into doubt some of the stories Jane has written for her paper.
Watching the two actresses rehearse, Weinraub said, "… It was so powerful. They were grabbing each other, holding each other. I said, 'Oh, my God, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this kind of thing happening.' They brought so much to the roles.
"What I realized is that once the actors start rehearsing, it isn't quite out of your hands but it really is out of your hands," he said. "The actors bring their own personas, their own dynamics, their own relationships. So, for a writer, there are constant surprises during the rehearsal process."
The play is inspired by a 2006 criminal case in which three members of the Duke University lacrosse team in Durham, N.C., were accused of raping an African American student from another university who worked as a stripper. The media descended on the university, and the case inflamed racial tensions. All charges were eventually dropped, and a state investigation concluded there had been no rape or assault.
It was the media coverage that piqued Weinraub's interest.
"The case itself, to be honest, did not interest me that much," he explained. "I was interested in … how the press dealt with it.... So I began thinking, what happens to a reporter in the world I grew up in who goes down to cover a story like this? And the pressures the reporter faces? And the political nature of this, in the fact that we all believed at the very outset that the boys were so obviously guilty. Everybody believed this, including newspapers."