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Chicago by John Olson

The Good Negro
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's review of A Streetcar Named Desire

The Good Negro
Billy Eugene Jones
It's been nearly 50 years since the events that prompted Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964—a passage of time that allows playwright Tracey Scott Wilson the ability to look at the heroes of that movement realistically as well as affectionately. She fictionalizes key figures and events of the time with enough resemblance to the actual events and figures to give a feeling of truth, if not literal historical accuracy, while giving herself the leeway to create a drama from that history.

These events and figures give her source material for great characters and a compelling story. In it, an organization simply referred to as "the movement," but clearly intended to represent the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is led by charismatic minister James Lawrence (an obvious surrogate for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). As the play opens, Lawrence, his close associate Henry Evans and his new Executive Director Bill Rutherford have been campaigning for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama, for some time. They see an opportunity to gain momentum for their movement when a mother and her young daughter are arrested for the daughter's use of a "white only" restroom in a downtown department store. (The "colored peoples'" bathroom was broken and the mother refused to make her daughter relieve herself next to a dumpster, as she had seen others do.) Against her husband's wishes, the mother agrees to speak out against segregation at a movement rally, and public support for a boycott of downtown Birmingham's retailers increases. While the event is apparently fictional, Wilson’s depiction of the campaign that grows from it closely follows the real-life events of the 1963 Birmingham campaign, in which mass public protests were staged beginning with sit-ins at the whites-only lunch counter of Newberry’s Department Store.

White reaction to the campaign and planning of the campaign itself are closely monitored by the FBI, under the close supervision of its then-director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover seems most interested in keeping the peace and maintaining the status quo. Two FBI field agents in Birmingham hire an informant, named both in real life and in the play Garrett Thomas Rowe, to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan even as they seek to find information that will discredit and disarm Lawrence and the Movement.

Wilson ingeniously reinforces the evils of segregation without belaboring the point. The only white racist on stage is Rowe, played as more of a bumbler than villain by Dan Waller. In this story, Rowe incites the play's action by attempting a citizen's arrest of the mother and daughter before agreeing to go undercover for the FBI. His work for the Bureau seems motivated more to enhance his self-esteem than any desire to do good. Wilson's acknowledgement that the audience doesn't need to be convinced of the wrongness of segregation and racism allows her to take a more nuanced look at the participants of the movement. Director Chuck Wilson's cast delivers these shadings in convincing detail.

Movement leader Reverend Lawrence is shown to be exceedingly human. He has a large enough ego to take on the enormous mission and attendant risks of the cause, and he's not above cutting and running from a particular campaign when the likelihood of failure seems high. Additionally, he's shown to be a philanderer and his attraction to the young mother is shown to be a danger to the movement. Billy Eugene Jones' forceful portrayal of Reverend Lawrence captures all these complexities and contradictions. His Lawrence is a man to be admired and revered, yet not canonized. His lieutenants are similarly heroic and flawed. Evans, in a fiery performance by Teagle F. Bougere, is suspicious of the light-skinned, systems-oriented Rutherford. Evans has a short fuse as well as a great sense of humor and complete commitment to the cause. Demetrios Troy makes Rutherford a likeable bureaucrat who learns the human cost of the struggle and grows immensely in the process. The frailties of these three men provide a lot of humor in the play, with an earthiness and warmth that may be unexpected given the subject matter.

Arguably, though, the greatest courage comes from the mother, Claudette Sullivan, and her husband Pelzie. Pelzie loses his job and much of his self-esteem because of the family's political activities. The entire family is at risk of physical harm from the white supremacists. The couple is played with great sensitivity and nobility by Nambi E. Kelley as Claudette and Tory O. Davis as Pelzie. As Lawrence's wife Corinne, Karen Aldridge displays the character's justifiable rage at her husband's infidelities even as she finds a way to react to the situation that won't threaten the movement. The cast is rounded out by Mick Weber and John Hoogenakker as the FBI agents who dutifully but begrudgingly carry out Hoover's mission, though they believe surveillance of Lawrence to be fruitless. Weber playfully creates a familiar archetype of the weary veteran law enforcement official while Hoogenakker's younger agent has greater ambitions beyond his current dubious assignment.

The story's high stakes and fascinating array of characters propel The Good Negro past a rather static staging and choppy narrative. Scenes are generally played downstage, alternating between stage left and stage right. Cooper's direction has little visual imagination, though the simple set by Riccardo Hernandez—a wood paneled wall with brushed steel beams that form a cross and the outline of a peaked church roof—provides some context. Birgit Rattenborg Wise's costumes provide detail of the period, which is further evoked by Mike Tutaj's projections of historical photos. With its many scenes and necessary relegation of key narrative events to offstage, it seems The Good Negro could be even more effective as a feature film, where additional scenes could be provided and the narrative smoothed out.

Still, The Good Negro is both a powerful and powerfully entertaining play. The characters are engaging and the stakes couldn't be higher, but its accomplishments as drama should in no way diminish its importance as history and argument for political and societal change. If there's any temptation to view the play simply as the good drama it is, and consider the fight against discrimination a settled issue, recent events may suggest otherwise. Ironically, in the week following this production's opening, a candidate who has indicated his disapproval of current laws that protect against discrimination in public accommodations, won his party's primary for United States Senator. The Good Negro brings the audience back to a realization of the human damage of racism and cost of combating it.

The Good Negro will be performed at the Goodman's Albert Theatre through June 6, 2010. For tickets, call 312-443-3800, visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org or visit the box office at 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.


Photo: Eric Y. Exit

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-- John Olson



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