Even in segregated Alabama, 1962, things were hardly black and white, and that's what makes Tracey Scott Wilson's meaty new play, The Good Negro, a Technicolor triumph. This radiance of nuance represents the truth: good, bad, and the ugly are just different hues. After all, to some, "good" is maintaining the status quo; to others, standing up to oppression, nonviolently, is what makes one "good"; still others will celebrate those who fought back directly, blow for blow.
It's a lesson that Pelzie Sullivan (Francois Battiste) learns rather quickly after his wife, Claudette (Joniece Abbot-Pratt), and his four-year-old daughter are arrested for using a white restroom. It isn't long before the good minister James Lawrence (Curtis McClarin) arrives, galvanized to action. Also on scene is the wiretapping FBI, Paul Moore and Steve Lane (Quincy Dunn-Baker and Brian Wallace). These are the "good" guys, though they quickly prove otherwise as they tap a local would-be hero, Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr. (Erik Jensen), to join and inform on the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, everyone succumbs: Lawrence's right-hand men--the controlling preacher, Henry Evans (the phenomenal J. Bernard Calloway) and clueless lawyer, Bill Rutherford (LeRoy McClain)--squabble over how to best fight segregation. Pelzie, after losing his job, turns to alcohol, and his wife cheats on him . . . with that "good" minster, James Lawrence.
By knocking everyone off their pedestals, Wilson lends more weight to their arguments, not less. Leveling the playing field also allows her to juxtapose scenes to sometimes terrifying effect, stripping away the easy moral signifiers of "good" and "bad" until there are only two passionate men speaking. At one point, twin sermons from Rowe and Lawrence overlap, joining on the line "Help us my friends"; their passions are identical, their audiences just happen to be different. This effect is enhanced by Liesl Tommy's expert direction--though these scenes are miles apart in content, they share the same plain wooden stage, the same chairs and tables. Scenes don't end, they just shift focus, as when Lawrence suddenly fades out, his presence overshadowed by the FBI's arrival, his voice replaced by the tape they've made of him. Additionally, thanks to quick lights from Lap Chi Chu and an excellent sound design from Daniel Baker, the audience often becomes the audience-within-a-play (i.e., the congregation), amens, murmurs, and all.
While there is a degree of stage magic, there are no tricks going on--in fact, if anything, the lack of walls on Clint Ramos's set hints at the fact that we are meant to see everything. And we do: when a bomb goes off in Rutherford's house, a jealous Evans tries to explain that they were probably aiming for his house; when Evans and Lawrence are arrested and the police car heads for the bridge instead of the jail, we can see the fear sweating down their brows; we're sympathetic even to the FBI agents, who follow orders because it is easier to do that than to think about the morality of their actions.
In fact, Wilson shows us everything except for the actual marches and the actual violence. It's a smart move, because it helps us to keep things personal, without getting lost in the emotions of larger events. In this sense, The Good Negro seems almost Sorkin-esque, doing a better job at showcasing segregation by remaining resolutely behind the scenes, more interested in the people and the politics than the results--and it's this that makes the last twenty minutes so powerful.