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The Good Negro

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Curtis McClarin with Quincy Dunn-Baker and Brian Wallace
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The honeymoon is over. No, not with the Obama administration, though that's apparently on the wane as well, but with the hagiography that likens every crusader for a righteousness to gods given earthly form. (Okay, maybe there is an Obama connection.) With her absorbing new play The Good Negro, which just opened at The Public Theater, Tracey Scott Wilson wants it known that the greatest men aren't always great, or even good, people.

That's a sobering, saddening, and inescapably necessary message for all Americans - especially when it comes to rethinking their outlook on race. That's the battle at the heart of Wilson's powerfully pulsing play, which has been directed with cinematic urgency by Liesl Tommy: the cry for Civil Rights in 1962 Birmingham, Alabama. And Wilson lets no one off the hook for perpetuating fear and hatred: not white racists (including the Ku Klux Klan), not the FBI agents (with their own shadowy motives) monitoring the situation, and not even the victims on the frontlines and the advocates they hire to set things right.

Nearly everyone is guilty in some way, but we can't understand how until we see the establishing innocence. That's provided by Claudette Sullivan (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), who's separated from her four-year-old daughter Shelly following a run-in with security at a department store. The crime? The black Claudette's letting Shelly use a whites-only bathroom rather than the back alley, the only other alternative. Her story attracts the attention of James Lawrence (Curtis McClarin), an itinerant and prominent pastor who's leading the charge for equal rights wherever it takes him - and Birmingham could be his chance to have his biggest impact yet.

Joniece Abbott-Pratt and Francois Battiste
Photo by Joan Marcus.

With the help of Bill Rutherford (LeRoy McClain), an organizational mastermind newly returned from Geneva, and Henry Evans (J. Bernard Calloway), Lawrence's second-in-command, Lawrence is sure nothing can stand in the way of the progress he's fought for his whole career. Shelly is adorable and Claudette is pretty and precisely spoken: the perfect media family. Unfortunately, Claudette's husband, Pelzie (Francois Battiste) is uneducated, which doesn't help. Nor does Lawrence's own penchant for seeking solace in the arms of women other than his wife, Corinne (Rachel Nicks), and surrounding himself with friends rather the brightest or rightest for the fight.

Such secrets have a way of escaping, especially when the FBI (represented by two agents played by Quincy Dunn-Baker and Brian Wallace) is listening to every word anyone says, and inducing the man who performed a "citizen's arrest" on Claudette (Erik Jensen) to infiltrate the Klan's highest echelons by any means necessary. No one is safe from outside scrutiny, and simply appearing to be well-behaved is never good enough. Only saints instantly win these wars - and they're in short supply.

Wilson's willingness to show her characters' private flaws and disagreements as well as their unscratched public personas goes a long way to making her play the quickest two hours and 45 minutes in town: Aside from a couple of glimpse of Lawrence's sermons (and, in one uproariously stiff case, Rutherford's), there's no preaching and there's no excusing what they say or do. Worthwhile causes are achieved, she argues, in spite of humanity - and never in the absence of it. As a result, The Good Negro is never less than believable, and often is very close to profound.

Is everyone, from Lawrence to Claudette and even (or especially) Shelly, nothing more than either a weapon or a shield - and is that acceptable? Can the FBI go too far in keeping the peace? At what point do Lawrence's personal failings overwhelm his very real passion, charisma, and ability to effect change? These questions take on far greater resonance in the absence of unassailable heroes than they do as sidelights in more polished sagas, and the various forms of interplay between them as so many characters struggle just to stay upright gives the show its truest depth.

This is also represented with the use of scenes that overlap in twos and threes as the factions face off, never letting you forget that no conflict is ever one-sided. Although this can be confusing on the page, it's all perfectly clear in Tommy's staging, with firecracker-brisk pacing and careful demarcations of space that tame even the most cacophonous explosions of sound and tension. Clint Ramos's backroom lecture hall set is of no particular usefulness to this story - a black box stage would be at least as effective - but lighting designer Lap Chi Chu greatly assists with quick cuts and cross-fades that never let the action sag.

None of the performers disappoints, even in the more predictable or functional roles - Dunn-Baker and Wallace are unusually textured as the cagey FBI agents, and Jensen skillfully keeps his openly prejudiced character from being a stereotypical redneck. Abbott-Pratt and Nicks bring clarion dignity to the women who are most abused on and off the battlefield, but never demand or present pity. McClain, Calloway, and Battiste present three extremely different but equally convincing versions of the black man facing assimilation.

McClarin tackles the tough assignment of being both the best and the worst man in Birmingham with magnetic aplomb. His Lawrence all loving-god-fire-and-brimstone in pulpit mode, but a wounded teenager when his congregation is absent. Yet you never see any hint of regret in his eyes - this is a man who knows his own weaknesses, knows what he's done wrong, and can only hope to be forgiven. McClarin doesn't skimp on either side of the personality, and leaves you constantly wondering whether Lawrence is trying to create opportunity or is merely an opportunist. That you can never know for certain about him anymore than you can about yourself is what makes The Good Negro great.

The Good Negro
Through April 19
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets: Public Theater

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