By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
No single character represents The Good Negro in Tracey Scott Wilson's explosive new play, getting its world premiere at Dallas Theater Center before a transfer to New York's Public Theater. The title is a throwback to an old phrase used by Southern folk for blacks who didn't threaten the white status quo. In the play it's both compliment and insult, depending on the race of the person saying it.
This re-imagining of the dawn of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s happens mostly in a black church in Birmingham, Alabama (abstractly suggested by scenic designer Clint Ramos' geometric black and white set). Blessed with majestic oratory skills and sleek good looks, a young preacher, the Rev. James Lawrence (played by Dallas-born actor Billy Eugene Jones), has a bold vision for how to end Jim Crow laws through civil disobedience. But he also has a weakness for pretty women, a moral failing that will threaten his public image and his marriage. Even after his indiscretions are exposed via FBI leaks, he'll make excuses. Cheating on stoic wife Corinne (Roslyn Ruff), says Lawrence late in the play, "is the only time I feel free."
While fighting for freedom on a greater level, the good guys can't help being all too human in Wilson's play, which comes to DTC with a forceful cast of New York actors, who have been workshopping the script with the playwright for two years. Joe Nemmers, a company member at Kitchen Dog Theater, and Steven Walters, a Second Thought founder brought back from L.A. for this show, join the impressive ensemble in important supporting roles. Liesl Tommy directed the production (reviewed at a preview).
The play depicts all its heroes as dedicated and determined, and undone by tragic flaws. Besides the handsome young minister, there's a black lawyer, Rutherford (LeRoy McClain), who flies in from Europe to handle the legal angles on the civil rights case that Lawrence believes can spur an end to segregation in the Deep South. Turns out crusader Rutherford is a black-on-black snob, professing concern for the welfare of less-educated brethren while tactlessly correcting their grammar. And there is Henry (J. Bernard Calloway), a black minister who harbors resentment toward Rutherford for big-footing his way to becoming Lawrence's right hand and who lets simmering jealousy boil over toward Lawrence for rising to prominence as the face and voice of the cause. And there are the white FBI agents (Brian Wallace, Steven Walters) assigned to spy on Lawrence and company via bugs and wiretaps. They start out as gung-ho, if bumbling, G-men doing everything ordered by "the old man" (that would be J. Edgar Hoover). They end up jaded and ashamed of their own sleazy investigation methods.
Everyone in this play undergoes some existential upheaval, especially the best "good negro" of all, Claudette Sullivan (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), arrested, beaten and jailed for allowing her 4-year-old daughter to enter a whites-only department store restroom. In Claudette, the black preachers and lawyer Rutherford see their golden opportunity for good press, mainly because she's "photogenic, intelligent and articulate." Her case can help galvanize black citizens to boycott local businesses. But Claudette, a simple woman who shares a country shack with barely literate husband Pelzie (Francois Battiste) and their child (never seen), has no desire to be a symbol for racial equality.
How Lawrence and Rutherford turn reluctant Claudette into a Rosa Parks-like icon is the pivot point of The Good Negro. Parallel stories playing out in brisk, overlapping scenes follow the FBI agents' involvement with a local hothead redneck (Nemmers) paid to join the KKK as an informant.
Wilson is almost dangerously heretical in how she's written this deeply engrossing play, which runs just over two and a half hours. She presents Lawrence, clearly based on Martin Luther King Jr., and those around him as real men instead of saintly paragons, and she dares to conflate historical incidents that occurred around the same time period, including the "Four Little Girls" Birmingham church bombing in 1963 that becomes an important plot turn in the play's second act. (Wilson has said she was inspired by Diane McWhorter's meticulously researched nonfiction Pulitzer winner Carry Me Home.)
In dramatizing The Good Negro as fiction based on fact, Wilson gives us a finely crafted play that is both parable and metaphor. She allows her characters to argue—lavishly and brilliantly—the moral, legal and religious aspects of those early civil rights protests. She shows them fighting each other nearly as passionately as they fight their tormentors. And in not lionizing the black characters, she also doesn't demonize the whites. People on both sides were exploited, says this play. That includes, as Wilson writes it, blacks who didn't want to risk their livelihoods or lives by participating publicly in marches, but were guilted into it anyway; and racist whites encouraged by law enforcement, including the FBI, to commit violence against blacks.
The Good Negro is great theater.
Leonard's Car [when the rainbow is NOT enuf], by Dallas playwright Isabella Russell-Ides, is the first production in the new Bishop Arts Theater Center, a swank little performance space on a soon-to-be-trendy stretch of Tyler Street in Oak Cliff. The one-act still feels rough in spots, but there are hints of something good beneath the screaming and over-emoting in an 80-minute vignette about a middle-aged white alcoholic being shoved toward rehab by her straight-laced (adopted) black daughters.