Four year old Shelly Sullivan just wants to use the bathroom. Problem is, it’s 1962 in the deep South, and the facilities assigned to African Americans are broken. Her mother, Claudette (a fierce Nambi E. Kelley), decides rather than let her daughter go in the back alley, she’ll risk taking her daughter to the bathroom designated for “whites only.” This act leads to her violent arrest, with both Claudette and Shelly thrown in jail — an outrageous mistreatment that triggers a spark in the Alabama civil rights movement.
This series of events catches the attention of a trio of civil rights leaders who are looking for a figurehead — a “good negro,” so to speak — to represent their sagging fight for equality.
Tracey Scott Wilson takes a look at this explosive historical movement from the inside out in her powerful new play The Good Negro, playing at the Goodman Theatre. Using a fictionalized account based on events surrounding the era, Wilson examines the struggles civil rights leaders faced in creating and maintaining the movement, while overcoming the life-threatening forces of racism and bigotry in their own lives.
Our leader is the charismatic Reverend James Lawrence, played by the smooth-talking Billy Eugene Jones. A gifted and inspiring speaker, Lawrence knows just what to say to get people charged up (and also how to get himself out a sticky situation). As his close friend and personal advisor, Henry (the spirited Teagle F. Bougere), may have let the allure of publicity and personal fame cloud his focus. Dejected, they are ready to pack up their bags and move on to the next town. However, fussy newcomer Bill Rutherford (Demetrios Troy) is fiercely determined to get this group back on track — and Claudette may prove the key. She’s wholesome, educated and empathetic. And attractive. (Which may prove a challenge for Rev. Lawrence.)
Meanwhile, as intense strategizing goes on behind closed doors to revive the movement, a duo of FBI agents (Mick Weber and John Hoogenakker), charged with finding a way to undermine their efforts, listens in from a wiretap. Out of desperation, they hire an informant (the bumbling Dan Waller) to join the KKK for “insider information.”
Wilson’s script, directed with a clear hand by Chuck Smith on a basic setting of oak planks by Riccardo Hernandez, does an admirable job looking inside the personal struggles of these leaders. While they are “good negros” in appearance, with crisp, tailored suits and polished public speaking skills, these are flawed, nervous human beings with deep personal conflicts. The path to equality was, and continues to be, a messy, complex and emotionally-draining commitment, and Wilson explores how the weight of this responsibility impacts these three men and their families. It’s a gripping analysis full of humanity and heart.
However, less is always more, and Wilson seems to like saying the same thing many times over. There are moments where we are literally being preached to by Rev. Lawrence’s character on a message that has been touched on in a previous scene. Repetition may work for a civil rights campaign, but not in the theatre. And the white characters are basically caricatures here, spouting things that sounds more like pro-segregation propaganda than actual human dialogue. While I understand there needs to be context for the action to play in, it needs to ring true.
Still, this is an insightful play that takes a unique look at a critical time in our nation’s history. I recommend it.
“The Good Negro” plays through June 6 at the Goodman Theatre. Running time is roughly 2 hours, 30 minutes. Go here for more information >