The Good Negro
By: Tracey Scott Wilson
Directed by: Chuck Smith
At the Albert Ivar Goodman Theatre
Civil Rights Play the Perfect Blend of Humor, History, and Humanity.
In many instances, plays about social movements are more about propaganda than the characters. This is especially true when those plays are written during or immediately after those social movements. However, I find the best plays about social movements and political upheaval come several years after the fact when the author is an impartial observer to the circumstances. They look at the facts with a more objective eye and are then able to relay the story and history, rather than preach about social and racial equality. By simply presenting facts and making all of the characters human and flawed, playwright Tracey Scott Wilson’s The Good Negro succeeds as a piece of entertaining theatre about the civil rights movement, without resorting to propaganda or pursuing a political agenda.
When I say facts that is not to say the entirety of the story is true. The play is inspired by the personal stories behind the political upheavals of the time but is a fictionalized account. It is Montgomery, Alabama in 1962 and racial tensions have reached a boiling point. A trio of powerful black leaders emerge: preachers James Lawrence (Billy Eugene Jones), Henry Evans (Teagle F. Bougere), and their business-minded associate Bill Rutherford (Demetrios Troy). As they struggle to end segregation, an act of intolerance involving a young girl and her mother Claudette (Nambi E. Kelley) being placed in prison for using a white restroom becomes the face of the civil rights movement. Throughout the action, a pair of FBI agents (John Hoogenakker and Mick Weber) wire-tap all conversations and utilize the assistance of a local man named Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. (Dan Waller) to gain access to the inner workings of the Ku Klux Klan. What I find most successful about this script is that the playwright takes no sides. The preachers are seen as imperfect human beings whose moral shortcomings may lead to the downfall of the civil rights movement. Even the white supremacist is sympathetic for joining the KKK under the pressure of the FBI to give them intelligence. All of the characters are doing what they have to do in order to reach their desired outcome, even if their means do not justify the end. The only shortcoming of the script is that it is about twenty minutes too long and the pace starts to drag a bit, otherwise it is a very powerful tale. The characters are all flawed, which is a great contradiction to the idea of the “good Negro” they need to represent the movement. Towards the end of the play, the observation is made that the white people are just as bad as them, but since they already have rights they’re allowed to show it. As I said, the play doesn’t take sides, but it gives a lot of food for thought.
This show has some truly stellar performances, especially those of Demetrios Troy as Rutherford and Karen Aldridge as Connie Lawrence. Mr. Troy reminded me of a more subdued version of Carlton Banks from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a European black man who gives up his comfortable life to help the movement. He is often hilarious and awkward, but stands on his own during the more dramatic moments of the play. Ms. Aldridge is moving as Preacher Lawrence’s wife, in particular her reaction to discovering her husband’s infidelities. That scene is unquestionably the best-written, best-acted scene in entire play, and there are several strong performances and well-written scenes. Billy Eugene Jones as James Lawrence has a commanding presence and wonderfully veils his inner desires to the outside world. Teagle F. Bougere is also charming as Henry Evans, a man committed to the movement, but wants the personal recognition and fame that comes with the struggle. Dan Waller as Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. should be applauded as well for brining touches of humanity to the white supremacist and actually making him sympathetic. Kudos to the entire cast for doing such a wonderful job.
Director Chuck Smith has done a wonderful job choreographing the play in a manner that keeps the momentum constantly moving forward. The focus of the piece is on the actors, with only simple lighting changes and furniture to signify change of time and place. Tony Award-nominated Set Designer Riccardo Hernandez has put together a bare, wooden background set with simple white lines that can be back-lit to create a cross, roof, or pulpit. Although the scenes constantly shifted location I never got confused as to where the characters were or what was happening. This is a great example of the director and scenic designer working in perfect collaboration. The projections of Mike Tutaj add an additional layer to the set, artistically displaying the images of photojournalist Charles Moore. The technical aspects of the show create an atmosphere that enhances the script, allows the actors to be the main focus, and enables the director to keep a tight pace.
Since I did not grow up during the civil rights movement, it is always difficult for me to relate to plays like this, but this play is definitely an exception. This is far and away the most entertaining play or movie about the civil rights era I have seen because the focus is on flawed characters struggling with their personal demons in the face of making sweeping social change. There are no good or bad people, just people. Although it does drag on about twenty minutes too long, that is the only major flaw I can find in this production. The lack of bias, presentation the leaders of the civil rights movement as imperfect people, and entertaining/emotionally engaging dialogue makes this a great show to see, regardless of your nationality.
At the Albert Ivar Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Chicago, IL. Tickets $17.50-$71.00. Student and Group rates available. Call 312-443-3800, www.goodmantheatre.org. Wednesday, Thursday, and Sundays at 7:30 PM; Thursday, Saturday, Sundays at 2:00 PM, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 PM. Running time is approximately 2 hour 30 minutes with 1 15-minute intermission.