note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Beverly Creasey
Tracey Scott Wilson’s THE GOOD NEGRO (through Feb. 6th at the Boston Center for the Arts) is a sprawling bio-drama based on the events which sparked the Birmingham boycott, propelling both Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement to national prominence. Wilson’s imagined “backstage” history shines a light on the innocent individuals swept into harm’s way in “service of the cause.” Wilson says she “sought to debunk some of the fictional aspects of the [Civil Rights] movement, including the saintliness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
She does just that, focusing on his strained marriage and numerous affairs on the road (old news to those of us in the movement). Luckily, director Summer L. Williams’ production for Company One has Jonathan Dent as Dr. King, here called Dr. Lawrence. Dent gives a remarkable performance, showing us the man’s charisma and strength despite the flaws. Dent carries the play, even when it wanders. What strikes me about Wilson’s inclusion of King’s affairs is that they and not the movement become the focus of the play. And just as surprising is what she leaves out, like the huge rift between King and his first lieutenant, Dr. Ralph Abernathy…and King’s stance against the Viet Nam war.
The cast is extraordinary with a tour de force performance by James Milord as the distraught father of the four year old girl whose mother took her into a “white’s only” bathroom…and fine work from Marvelyn McFarlane as the child’s mother…from Cedric Lilly as King’s officious strategist and from Cliff Odle as King’s second in command. Kris Sidberry is King’s longsuffering wife with Jeff Mahoney and Jonathan Overby as the slimy feds who manipulate the Klan and precipitate the violence that Grag Maraio’s redneck is happy to instigate.
Sorry to say, from my perspective as a protester and a marcher back in the day (and sadly, still, with war and injustice on the rise again) Wilson’s play seems pretty far from the idealistic spirit we shared in the ‘60s.