With all the shows I have had to see recently, somehow The Good Negro slipped past me until I was, fortunately, able to catch the very emotional closing night performance at the Public Theater. I only wish I could have seen it sooner to persuade everyone to see this riveting play by Tracey Scott Wilson which takes place in 1962 Birmingham, Alabama where segregation was the accepted norm and there were bathrooms for Men, Women and Colored.
Claudette Sullivan, a well spoken good negro (a magnificent Joniece Abbott-Pratt) is attacked and arrested by a citizen for letting her daughter use a white bathroom in a store (the colored one was out of order). Thinking she was out of order, red neck, beer guzzling and comic book reader Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr. (Erik Jensen) does the arresting. Her four year old girl is taken away and put in a holding cell.
This is the main thrust of this unsettling slice of reality as the sweet talking, womanizing Minister, Reverend James Lawrence (loosely based on Martin Luther King Jr.) chooses this incident to further his cause for freedom for the black community, non-violent action and a way to gather enough people to march in protest. Pelzie Sullivan (a wonderful Francois Battiste) is torn between helping and not helping his wife and the Reverend in their cause. He sees nothing but trouble ahead if they agree to exploit the situation and he is so right.
Helping the Reverend is Henry Evans (J. Bernard Calloway in a boisterous Al Sharpton mode with a huge ego) and Bill Rutherford (LeRoy McClain) who has come from Europe to organize the trio which somehow never seem to agree on anything. They are all beautifully humanized.
The two F.B.I. agents taping conversations from hidden microphones and who hire the red neck Rowe Jr. as an informant regarding the KKK are both menacingly excellent. Paul Moore (Quincy Dunn-Baker) and Steve Lane (Brian Wallace).
As the very chic, French speaking, put upon wife of Reverend (Tom Cat) Lawrence, Rachael Nicks as Corinne Lawrence gives an explosive performance just short of throttling her husband for his indiscretions that if became public would ruin all that he has worked for. He can’t help himself. He has personal weaknesses and gives one of the most outrageous explanations for his dalliances I’ve ever heard.
It is a fine as cast as can be assembled. Under the wonderfully imaginative and swift direction of Liesl Tommy that keeps the many scenes in motion at all times making the nearly three hour show pass by without a dull or uninspired moment.
The Good Negro is a testament to those people who started the civil rights movement, trying to challenge the laws of segregation. So many profiles in courage, despite their individual weaknesses where the end justified the means.