Friday, January 22, 2010

Lives of the saints

The central triangle of The Good Negro.

History is made, of course, not by saints but by men of flesh and blood.

And so Tracey Scott Wilson's The Good Negro, now at Company One through Feb. 6, is a welcome attempt to treat the heroes of the civil rights struggle as imperfect individuals, while at the same time honoring their achievement - in a word, to reveal their feet of clay while not actually knocking them off their pedestals. Indeed, Ms. Wilson's clear intent is to give us a mature sense of how history actually happens, with flawed men and women (but mostly men) undermining their own best efforts, and making calculated gambles with other people's lives, while simultaneously risking their own safety in a manner that yes, can only be called heroic.

But Ms. Wilson, I'm afraid, isn't always up to the complex task of playing Bertolt Brecht to this historical episode. Of course Brecht himself wasn't always up to playing Bertolt Brecht (Galileo, anyone?) - and at any rate Ms. Wilson seems to want to conjure not simply the judgmental stance of "epic theatre" but something more like passionate identification mixed with critical distance. A tricky blend, surely. But the lumpy structure and abrupt shifts in tone of The Good Negro, along with a certain inability on the part of the playwright to actually penetrate the psyches of her characters, means that Wilson's execution lags behind the subtlety of her conception. And the talented Company One cast generally lacks the experience and tactical smarts to cover for the playwright.

Ms. Wilson has slightly disguised her characters - but they're so slightly disguised that we sometimes wonder why she bothered. The Reverend "James Lawrence" is clearly the Reverend Martin Luther King, and his wife "Corinne" is obviously "Coretta," and other figures are so close to the profiles of Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Bayard Rustin as to barely qualify as "composites." (Oddly - and I hope this isn't some kind of strange political statement - it seems that only the name of a white racist character, "Gary Thomas Rowe," matches an actual historical figure.) The playwright has an astute sense of the machinations and ethical compromises that must have dogged King/Lawrence and his inner circle, who in the play are focused on finding "a good Negro," a victim of Southern racism whose morals are so impeccable that he or she can serve as a standard-bearer for the struggle. They seem to find one in "Claudette Sullivan" (Marvelyn McFarlane), an accomplished young woman who is arrested for taking her daughter to a whites-only restroom. Claudette's husband (James Milord) is suspicious of what could be considered her exploitation, but despite his misgivings, she agrees to join the movement. Only predictably, the womanizing ways of the civil rights leadership mean that soon Claudette is making her own compromises, and even allowing her daughter to be led into harm's way.

As you can surmise, Ms. Wilson has thought through a gripping throughline for her script - but she dramatizes it awkwardly, blunting its ironic edge, and never really allows Claudette any room to breathe as a character. She instead concentrates on "Lawrence" and his trusted inner circle of "Cliff Odle" (Henry Evans) and "Bill Rutherford" (Cedric Lilly) - yet even here her writing is somewhat wooden, and really hot topics (like the open homosexuality of Rutherford/Rustin, and Lawrence/King's comfort with same) are treated superficially. And Wilson's just not very good at conjuring the kind of masculine intimacy that must have reigned here (King would eventually die in Ralph Abernathy's arms). Nor does she manage to convey the extraordinary rhetorical fire of Martin Luther King, so precisely what makes "Lawrence" so special has to be assumed from outside the drama. It's often claimed that men have difficulty writing women characters, but this is one case where I sometimes felt the opposite was true.

But wait, I'm afraid there's more. Wilson frames her drama with the FBI's famous effort to wiretap (and thus undermine) the movement, and at the same time infiltrate the KKK - but she often colors this stuff as low comedy (the G-men seem more like Keystone Kops than pawns of the KKK), so the whole sub-plot must make an abrupt U-turn to accommodate the drama's tragic finale. And in the staging at Company One, the eavesdropping agents are always off to one corner, dreaming of trips to Vegas, rather than hovering in the background like menacing, if incompetent, cousins of Big Brother.

I suppose a galvanizing production could distract us from all these missteps by the playwright, but the Company One cast, though talented, doesn't have quite that kind of star power, and director Summer L. Williams lacks the technical savvy to disguise the shapelessness of many of the scenes. Charismatic newcomer Jonathan L. Dent bears more than a passing resemblance to MLK, and he certainly throws himself into individual moments, but the sense of MLK's personal mystery, as well as the arc that the playwright seems to want to conjure, somehow elude him. Still, we hope to see more of this young actor on local stages, and soon. Marvelyn McFarlane and Kris Sidberry are perhaps more effective as Claudette and Corinne, but both are shortchanged by the script, just as Cedric Lilly is forced into a comic superficiality as Rutherford/Rustin. Probably the most compelling work comes from James Milord as Claudette's recalcitrant, not-ready-for-prime-time husband, and Henry Evans as the hearty Odle/Abernathy - and there are a few interesting moments from Jeff Mahoney and Jonathan Overby as the good-old-boy FBI agents, although both performances seem too light in conception. To be fair, the production nevertheless ends with a wallop - and there's one wonderful scene in which Lawrence and Odle briefly believe they're about to be lynched - which together give one a sense of the power latent in the material. But it may take more time, another playwright, and more productions before that power is finally unleashed onstage.

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