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By LAURA HEDLI
In his incendiary interview with The New York Observer, Jayson Blair is quoted as saying: "So Jayson Blair the human being could live, Jayson Blair the journalist had to die."
For Gabe McKinley, a similar scenario was true as he wrote CQ/CX, now playing at the Peter Norton Space in a production from Atlantic Theater Company. In order to dramatize the Blair scandal, McKinley had to distance himself from facts about the former New York Times journalist who plagiarized and fabricated stories. Instead, he focused on telling a larger tale about a media disaster that rocked the world’s trust in a top newspaper.
"It’s important to remember that as a playwright, sometimes getting away from the facts, you actually get closer to the truth," McKinley says. "I definitely took the step of moving some of the characters away from real people. The show became something of its own. It’s not a historical document; it’s a play."
Still, McKinley spent months mining for information, even drawing on first-hand knowledge. From 1996 until 2008, he worked on and off as a news assistant at the Times, following the path taken by his two older brothers. (His father was also a journalist.)
"It’s a very pressure-packed, crazy, building-of-sandcastles sort of existence," he says. "You become kind of addicted to adrenaline. Not unlike the theatre."
The hyperactive culture of the Times became part of Blair’s life, too. McKinley remembers the young reporter as "gregarious," "smart" and always around. Once Blair was fired from his post on the national desk in 2003, McKinley remembers thinking that his story would be great fodder for a play.
In 2010 he revisited the idea, expanding it to touch on several large themes. CQ/CX---the title refers to editing shorthand for fact checking---opens with a newspaper publisher addressing a group of summer interns. He shows a series of images that initially look like inkblots but eventually reveal the masthead of the first edition of the Times. McKinley says these visuals, reoccurring throughout the play, are meant to get at larger ideas: What makes good journalism? How should a story be told?
As for the Jayson Blair character, McKinley makes him into someone he believes is more defined than the actual public figure. "Jayson never gave one real explanation for why he did a lot of things that he did, and ultimately, that’s a kind of hard character to write a play about," he explains. "It’s very frustrating and unsatisfying for an audience, and for the writer, too."
Blair was just as elusive in post-scandal interviews as he was when he was writing from his apartment in Brooklyn but filing stories with datelines from Palestine, W.Va. or Bethesda, Ma. A black reporter, Blair has told publications he was an affirmative-action hire who was subjected to both racial preference and racism. He’s also said depression, substance abuse, exhaustion, and deadline pressures were all to blame for his transgressions.
All those subjects are dealt with in the play, but actor Kobi Libii, who plays the character based on Blair, believes it's really a story about ambition. As he developed his performance, he was aware that he was using history only as an inspiration. "In order to create a credible and specific portrait of a person, we had to make some pretty specific choices," he says. "Rather than just sort of guessing at what the real Jayson Blair was doing, we’ve made something different."Photo of CQ/CX cast members by Kevin Thomas Garcia