According to Preston Lane, his new play, Common Enemy, is "not about basketball, you understand. Not really."
It's an audacious claim. Designer Fred Kinney's basketball-court set at Greensboro's Triad Stage may not be regulation-size—half of it makes a 90-degree turn up the back wall of Pyrle Theater—but the netted hoop and backboard are in the right place. A scoreboard shows a win for the promising, if fictitious, Zebulon Zebras. And characters agonize or gloat over Duke's latest win over UNC as game footage on giant screens lingers on the martyred expression of coach Roy Williams.
Then there are the plot points of Lane's controversial drama, whose world-premiere run closes this weekend. An obscure liberal arts college in the fictive former mill town of Hawboro, North Carolina—a newcomer to Division I sports—is suddenly catapulted into the public eye when its men's basketball team makes its first appearance in the NCAA tournament.
But on the eve of its first-round game, Patrick Lee (Kurt Uy), a faculty sociologist, reveals damning evidence to the local newspaper. Zebulon's college administration has been conspiring for years to commit academic fraud within and beyond the institution. A paper trail has led him to payouts to families, players, surrogate test-takers and private charter schools: a pipeline, in short, for athletically gifted but academically hopeless high school players.
Not about basketball? "No," says Lane, the artistic director at Triad Stage. "No more than Ibsen's An Enemy of the People," which Playmakers Repertory Company produced this spring, "is a play about poisoned water."
That example isn't chosen at random. Early in Common Enemy, Lane mentions the author and the work, in which a whistleblower confronts an angry village with the truth. Ibsen appears among a constellation of other figures and institutions not generally associated with roundball: Galileo Galilei, Charlie Hebdo, Edward Snowden.
These name-drops alert us early on that Lane hasn't written a simple roman à clef based on the recent—and ongoing—unpleasantness over UNC athletics. That would be difficult enough for a North Carolina native and longtime Tar Heel fan. "The controversy has been very painful for me," the playwright admits. "I find it very hard to face the facts about what's going on in the NCAA. It's only just now that I think I'm finally coming to terms with it."
We soon realize that Lane is after even bigger game than corruption in college athletics. As his characters bare their souls—and their fangs—during Common Enemy's two acts, the theater becomes a forum in which the audience deliberates a series of uncomfortable, interlocking issues. Anti-intellectualism contends with exceptionalism and elitism, as levels of social and economic privilege determine just how much of the truth different characters can afford to tell.
Even more unsettling is the degree to which Lane's characters are unable to agree on what still has meaning in our culture. When Professor Lee confronts star point guard Ricky Oliver (Adam Barrie) with an ersatz term paper he didn't write and cannot read, Oliver unexpectedly goes on the offensive: "I can't read no bell hooks and I can't write no damn essay and it don't matter ... bell hooks don't matter. You don't matter. All your words and facts and theories ain't nothing but shit."
Just when we're ready to write off the complaints of another disgruntled student athlete, faculty member Jim Vance (Ben Baker) warns Lee about proceeding with his inquiry: "Your interloping, inconvenient truth is inconsequential when weighed against the balance of history and family and place ... The NCAA is nothing more than indentured servitude ... Athletics don't pay for better universities, they pay for better stadiums and better coaches. We know, Patrick ... and we just don't care."
Repeatedly, when characters attempt to speak truth to power, they find little consensus on what the truth is. After Lee confronts Bonnie Lee Abernathy (Elizabeth Flax), chancellor of the college, with the facts of the corruption, she replies, "The truth is we have propelled a third-rate liberal arts college in a failed industrial community ... toward a national profile."
The president of the college's board of trustees concurs: "Dr. Abernathy's athletic program is just about the only thing keeping our whole educational mission alive ... This old-fashioned liberal arts education that you think is so important is going the way of the dinosaur. We're doing whatever we can to protect it."
The assertions have the uncomfortable ring of truth in a country where liberal arts colleges have dwindled by at least 39 percent since 1990, as reported in a widely cited study in the Journal of Liberal Education. "I don't know that I'm a moral relativist," Lane says, "but I think the truth is more complex than people make it out to be."
"We want to think everything is so black and white—so red state/blue state," he continues, "but Rand Paul stands with me on freedom of information and the Fourth Amendment, and a lot of Democrats don't. He and I part ways in a number of other places. I'm a big fan of Snowden, and I'm appalled that so many Democrats aren't. The old 'Us versus Them' is breaking down."
When lines of different conflicts are simultaneously drawn across the stage in Lane's drama, his characters and audience can see the contradictions in their own social, political and economic positions. It's an unexpected, thought-provoking outcome—particularly from a play about basketball.
"We have to make compromises," Lane concludes. "If we continue to go around defining everyone by our truth and nothing else, we just wind up drawing battle lines."This article appeared in print with the headline "Blackboard Shattering."