The Good Negro

by Kay Bourne

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday January 18, 2010

(l-r) Marvelyn McFarlane, Jonathan L. Dent  and Kris Sidbury) in Company One production of The Good Negro
(l-r) Marvelyn McFarlane, Jonathan L. Dent and Kris Sidbury) in Company One production of The Good Negro  

When the going gets tough in Tracey Scott Wilson's deftly written The Good Negro, heroes emerge.  

The insider's guide to machinations behind the scenes in the Civil Rights Movement era in Birmingham, Alabama gets a rousing production from Company One that is intense and moves swiftly. The imaginatively plotted drama is eloquently directed by Summer L. Williams. To restate a phrase from the period, Williams keeps her eye unwaveringly on the prize of interweaving several plots into one powerful denouement. The Good Negro is stirring as well as enlightening. 

The drama illuminates how ordinary people, children among them, can tip the balance and help determine the outcome of events, if at considerable personal cost. The story-line commences when a prim and proper black mother who has taken her young daughter into a "whites only" bathroom in a downtown department store is arrested for breaking the Jim Crow law.  

Three years prior to the pivotal 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery for black voting rights and to end segregation in public places, and a year and a half before the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. gives his I Have A Dream speech, the movement was heating up in Birmingham. 

 A sprawling city with a bustling downtown shopping district, Birmingham became known as "bombingham" in the early 1960s when racist whites regularly fire bombed homes and even churches associated with black people defying Jim Crow. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church which killed little four girls attending Sunday School classes is the most notable example.  

The arrest of Claudette Sullivan (in a beautifully modulated performance by Marvelyn McFarlane) is a citizen's arrest, backed shortly by uniformed police who haul her and her small daughter off to jail.  

The cop wanna be, white supremist who nabs Mrs. Sullivan is Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr., given a right-on-target portrayal by Greg Maraio (who has the drawl down perfectly). His zeal catches the eye of two F.B.I. agents who are looking for a candidate to infiltrate the local KKK. As J. Edgar Hoover's eyes and ears on the scene, Jeff Mahoney and Jonathan Overby aptly portray loyal company men who follow orders, despite occasional second thoughts about Hoover's directives to prove that the Civil Rights leadership has ties to the Communist Party.  

At the center of this maelstrom-in-the-making is James Lawrence, a thinly veiled stand-in for the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  

Lawrence in a sturdy, multi dimensional performance from Jonathan L. Dent, is perplexed about how to galvanize sufficient numbers of black supporters to overwhelm the local white power structure or as he puts it, fill the jails to over flowing. He feels the time is now for direct action. He seizes upon the arrest of the upright Mrs. Sullivan as a banner for bringing more people into the protest. Lawrence's weak spot is an eye for the ladies which pains his wife, well played by Kris Sidberry, and creates for her the dilemma of staying with him for the good of the movement or giving up on the relationship. 

Discussing the best way to move forward politically with Lawrence are two high level aides. Insightfully played, Cliff Odle's jovial Henry Evans is an old hand at political maneuvering whose friendship with Lawrence is emotionally important to him. Cedric Lilly brings welcomed humor to his characterization of the newbie to the campaign, the rather prissy Bill Rutherford who learns on the job just how important the movement is to him personally.  ? 

In a deeply moving performance, James Milord plays Pelzie Sullivan, the average Joe whose wife's arrest brings him into the movement in a way he wouldn't have guessed. He is the little man of the movement who becomes a giant because of it. 

Christina Todesco has provided a set that manages to separate various threads of the story yet give us a complete picture of what's going on at all times. She is aided in this achievement by lighting designer Jarrod Bray whose skillful work accentuates the varying moods perfectly. The sound and projection design, which is seminally important to the drama has been well done by Jason E. Weber. The clothes from Miranda Giurleo also help in the characterization, especially the peter pan collared outfit worn by Mrs. Sullivan. 

An old French proverb tells us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. As you watch The Good Negro doubtless you'll be reminded of contemporary political figures whose weaknesses caught out undermine their ability to do good. The playwright doubtless wanted to jog our thinking in this way.  

First and foremost, however, the play's message is a salute to the courage of the men and women in this mighty movement that brought America that much closer to the ideals of its Constitution.  

The Good Negro continues through Feb. 6 at the Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont St. in the South End. Fro more info visit www.companyone.org. ? ? ? 

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