The Good Negro
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 15, 2009
Tracey Scott Wilson's The Good Negro feels to me like the most important play of the season. It's a fictionalized account of key events in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. The key figures in the play are James Lawrence, a visionary and charismatic minister/activist who seems to be modeled on Martin Luther King, Jr.,; his friend and fellow activist, a preacher named Henry Evans who could be a composite of Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker; and Bill Rutherford, who might be based on Bayard Rustin. To be clear: Wilson is writing fiction, not history. But the references to actual events in the lives of these men and others are obvious and direct, and reinforced by the assignment of names like Corinne to James's wife and Claudette to the young woman who galvanizes James and his colleagues to action in Birmingham, Alabama (Claudette Colvin was the 15-year-old African American girl who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in a forerunner to the more famous case involving Rosa Parks).
The story begins when Claudette Sullivan allows her baby daughter Shelley to use a white restroom in a Birmingham department store. Before she can get the girl away, she is assaulted by Gary Rowe, who says he's making a "citizen's arrest." After Rowe is chased away by two policemen, Claudette is beaten by one of the cops. All the while she is unable to rescue her child, who we learn later was taken to a holding cell.
James and Henry have just moved their operation to Birmingham, and joining them here is Rutherford, a more sophisticated man who has lived and worked in Europe but has nevertheless decided that he wants to help the cause of Civil Rights for American Negroes to progress. Henry and Rutherford are constantly at odds: the one is old-school, the other is up-to-date on the latest methods of corporate organization. James rightly understands that he needs both at his side. The three pounce on Claudette's story, knowing that the rampant injustice of it will help mobilize their supporters and move them toward their goals of organzing boycotts against the white merchants who perpetuate segregation and staging a protest march so potent that it will fill the jails of Alabama with their non-violent followers.
The events that follow will be familiar to anyone who lived through the Civil Rights Era (and hopefully to those younger than that). Rowe gets recruited by two FBI agents to go undercover in the Ku Klux Klan. James's home and office are wiretapped. Claudette's husband, Pelzie, wants to keep himself and his family out of the public eye and out of trouble, but Claudette feels the call of history pressing her to speak out about what happened to her. People are beaten. Houses are bombed.
Eventually—in a moment whose emotional intensity took me by surprise—Rutherford sees the future. "You're going to lead us to freedom," he says to James. We know how the story comes out: change comes to the United States of America, if too gradually, and 45 years later, Barack Obama gets elected President. The story is still so worth telling: maybe the last proud moment in American history we can look back upon.
The Public Theater's production, helmed with extraordinary skill by Liesl Tommy, is superlative in every department. The spare design by Clint Ramos on the deep stage of LuEsther Hall makes the pace lightning-quick and the transitions thrillingly cinematic. The ensemble is outstanding, with particular kudos due Curtis McClarin as James, J. Bernard Calloway as Henry, and Francois Battiste as Pelzie, who create characters who are all larger than life and achingly human. Quincy Dunn Baker and Brian Wallace make the two G-men as complex as they should be, while Erik Jensen gets the poisoned nature of Rowe exactly right. Rounding out the company are Joneice Abbott-Pratt (Claudette), LeRoy McClain (Rutherford), and Rachel Nicks (Corinne).
Something deep in Wilson's play, beyond its account of the early days of the Civil Rights movement, sets it apart to make it resonant in 2009. James is a flawed, very human man, despite his immense and unwavering vision and commitment. The more we relish how much we know about our leaders these days, the more we seem ready to pick them apart. Perhaps we should not.
Even more potent, for me, is the way that all of the disparate men and women in The Good Negro—bellicose Henry, buttoned-up Rutherford, poor and uneducated Pelzie—all agree finally that the cause James is leading is righteous and necessary. There's a moral imperative at the heart of the play, of a kind that seems hard to identify and harder to grab onto in the present day. What's the cause we would fight for, be willing to do what the people of the black churches of Alabama were willing to do:
They think they can stop us. They think their dogs, and water hoses and prison will stop us. But ain't nothing and nobody gonna stop us.
The story of The Good Negro is a great American story, that should be a source of inspiration to us all.