Never one for half measures, Tracey Scott Wilson grapples with the entirety of the Birmingham civil rights movement in her thunderous new play “The Good Negro.” Wielding artistic license like a boning knife, the playwright shears away real names and angelic reputations, leaving only the essentials of the conflict: a woman defying institutional racism; a tomcatting activist minister and his infighting friends; a horrific Klan murder. If Wilson’s attempt to dramaturgically compress all that history into one multi-threaded narrative isn’t a complete success, her wonderful dialogue, sturdy characters and palpable passion are nonetheless stunning.
A large part of the dazzle is surprise: Wilson’s lines are so speakable and easygoing they never betray a deeper meaning until the author wants them to, giving familiar material a new lease on life. Will segregation end? Will the charismatic, flawed Rev. Jimmy Lawrence (an astonishing Curtis McClarin) lead oppressed black Alabamians to equality and freedom? It probably sounds credulous, but we just don’t know. In what must have been a Herculean effort, given the topic, Wilson also resists the urge to pontificate or moralize. Instead, “The Good Negro” is history as conversation, and that much more interesting.
For example, when Jimmy and right-hand man Henry Evans (J. Bernard Calloway, equally good) tell a funny tall tale to fusty newcomer Bill Rutherford (a strong LeRoy McClain), the joke’s punchline comes off as a character-defining moment, reasserting the touchy power structure between the three men. Henry is the wiseass country boy who made good; Rutherford is the uptight, too-eloquent newcomer; Jimmy is the second coming of Jesus. When we hear the joke repeated later on, it’s horrifying, precisely because we remember its original, affable context.
In many ways, Wilson’s best-known play, “The Story,” is a warm-up act for “The Good Negro.” Where “The Story” had a recorded interview at its ambiguous heart, “The Good Negro” has FBI agents recording and replaying the black activists’ dialogue, trying to determine whether they’re talking in some kind of Commie code (this is the early 1960s, remember). And where “The Story” had characters cutting corners and lying to themselves about it, “The Good Negro” has Jimmy Lawrence.
At the play’s beginning Rutherford is our tour guide to this world — which has a surreal cast from the very first scene, when the cops back up an ignorant racist named Tommy Rowe (Erik Jensen, who plays his scenes with impressive good-ol’-boy conviction). But Jimmy is the play’s real heart and soul.
This is the Martin Luther King character, of course, though he’s hardly recognizable at first. Press-conscious, publicity-hungry and with very firmly established feet of clay, Jimmy looks from the first few scenes like a failure and worse, a kind of moral carpetbagger who steamrolls into town to enlist everyone in the service of his dangerous cause, local consequences be damned. It’s his charisma that gets him in and out of tight situations — he’d be an easy guy to resent.
As Jimmy, McClarin is dancing on thin ice, but we never see a crack. Even as mercurial as he is in his passions, Jimmy never wavers in his commitment to desegregation and freedom, and the utter conviction with which McClarin plays his every move — even the wincingly terrible ones — sells the character in all his fragility and surprising strength. With the halo taken away, it’s as flattering a portrait of King as anyone could want.
Wilson has given Jimmy the play’s full second act, and the best moments in the piece are devoted to the contradictions he embodies. In one amazing scene, Henry and Jimmy pray over Jimmy’s sin literally knocking at the door; in another, Jimmy preaches freedom from the church pulpit as Rowe creepily shouts Bible verses at a Klan rally, staged simultaneously.
That’s another thing Wilson does well — simultaneous staging — and it’s probably the only way she was able to fit as much history as she has into this play. Helmer Liesl Tommy has joined her in the effort, pulling voices out of the wings that sound like affirmation calls at one of King’s church services.
In its last few scenes, “The Good Negro” doesn’t quite pay off in the way it promises. Francois Battiste gives a deeply felt performance as Pelzie Sullivan but isn’t a terribly convincing Southern Alabama native, and the play’s climax hinges on a confrontation between Pelzie and Jimmy. That’s another problem: Jimmy becomes the play’s protagonist halfway through, and we’re left with a lot of wonders about Rutherford. But those problems are easily forgivable.
The play’s conclusions about race give “The Good Negro” a ruminative tone, rather than an accusatory one. It’s meaty, engrossing theater, staged very well, and it continuously keeps us on our toes, even after we’ve left the building.