Thursday, October 23, 2008
Theater Review: The Good Negro
It’s worth figuring out, because ultimately The Good Negro is powerful drama about an important American era.
Although the characters in Tracey Scott Wilson’s The Good Negro are fictional, the story focuses on a pivotal point in U.S. history — Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. The characters invite comparisons to real-life figures (most notably Martin Luther King Jr.), and one of the play’s final plot points correlates to the tragic bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. No surprise, considering the play is inspired by Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction book Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climatic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.
This is fertile material for the kind of historical drama theater artists love to put on stage with intentions to provoke thought and maybe educate. Too often, such works are so didactic and pompous they fail to make engaging theater. Much less entertain. Wilson’s play — now having its world premiere at the Dallas Theater Center, in a co-production with New York’s esteemed Public Theater — overcomes the obstacles. It’s about 20 minutes too long (it clocks in at nearly three hours), but this staging by New York director Liesl Tommy is beautifully acted and moves briskly, even at the risk of confusing some theatergoers with its baldly overlapping scenes.
The Good Negro, which contains strong language and racial epithets (it is 1963 Alabama, after all), sets up its action when white supremacist Rowe (Joe Nemmers) accosts a black woman, Claudette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), who has let her four-year-old daughter use a whites-only bathroom. Her arrest brings in a team of civil rights activists who want to use this event to launch a non-violent protest, the goal being to end Jim Crow laws and help bridge the racial divide in the South.
The group is headed by James (Dallas native Billy Eugene Jones, returning to DTC for the first time in nearly a decade), a good-looking, smooth-talking reverend and crucial civil rights figure. His wandering eye is downplayed by his devoted wife Corinne (Roslyn Ruff), likely because she believes in the importance of his work. James’ team includes a vocal preacher, Henry (J. Bernard Calloway); and Rutherford (LeRoy McClain), an uppity black man who lives in Europe and finds condescends to the uneducated Southerners. He knows why some think of him as an Uncle Tom.
The trio deems the well-spoken Claudette, a doctor, a worthy launch pad for their mission. Despite the protests of her proud blue collar husband Pelzie (Francois Battiste), she’s on board.
On the other side are two white FBI agents (Brian Wallace and Steven Walters, the latter also making a welcome return to the Dallas stage) who tape record every conversation between the African-American characters. They enlist Rowe to join the KKK and become their pawn as they try to disrupt James and his band of “troublemakers.”
What elevates Wilson’s play above the usual trappings of historical drama (even fictionalized) is that she finds ways to humanize most of her characters, no matter which side they’re on (the FBI guys are broadly drawn, though). Maybe this is because they are fictionalized, but they have feelings and more importantly, flaws. James’ biggest failing — he can’t restrain his attraction to Claudette — threatens his stance that he would “never jeopardize the movement,” and it eventually harms his marriage.
James might be a stand-in for Martin Luther King, Jr., but Jones wisely doesn’t try for a copy of MLK. He creates a complex character whose self-doubt is trumped by his natural charisma that induces admiration from everyone around him, even if they’re not happy with his actions. This is most evident in McClain’s portrayal of Rutherford, a man who initially thinks he’ll be the most important player in this fight, but soon realizes that James, despite his flaws, is an undeniable force in the greater good.
For many, Calloway will be seen as a scene-stealer simply because his character is a boisterous Southern African-American preacher who knows how to stir up a crowd, but Calloway’s performance is not caricature. Nemmers gives a no-holds-barred turn as a villain you might actually feel for as he is played by the feds.
It all looks sharp in Clint Ramos’ spare set design, using only a few chairs and tables on a wood stage — a tactic that smacks of a desire for audiences to come away talking about nothing but the play itself. Ramos also created the handsome, tailored costumes, which along with Jon Carter’s hair and makeup design put us in the era.
As the lighting designer, Lap Chi Chu has a difficult task of working with the director’s vision, which blends scenes into each other with at least one character from the forthcoming scene onstage as the current scene plays out. The lighting usually helps to delineate what’s going on, but it doesn’t always work. In one second-act scene, four characters shared the same centerstage space, but it was two separate conversations. The teenagers sitting next to me had a hard time making sense of it.
It’s worth figuring out, because ultimately The Good Negro is powerful drama about an important American era. But, like good theater should do, it’s not just about the rearview mirror. As the current presidential race reveals that prejudice is still a major problem in this country, and as each party continually attempts to discredit the other, it’s clear that neither the past nor present are perfect.
The show runs through November 9 and tickets can be purchased online or by calling 214-522-8499.
Mark Lowry is a freelance writer based in Dallas who covered the North Texas theater scene for 10 years at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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