I can't think of too many better ways to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we observe this weekend, than to attend a performance of Tracey Scott Wilson's critically acclaimed The Good Negro. This also happens to be the opening weekend of the play's Boston premiere. It's the first play I've seen in Boston since my time here in the dimly remembered 1980s, but if it's characteristic of the quality of Boston's homegrown theater, I have a lot to look forward to during my stay here in 2010.
After its critically acclaimed run at the Public Theater in New York last year, this award-winning exploration of the Civil Rights movement focused well-deserved attention on its author. The new, debut production in this even more northern city, with its own racially charged history, bodes well for the 2010 season of Company One, a resident troupe at the Boston Center for the Arts, where a full house greeted the play on Saturday night with whoops and cheers even before the performance had begun.
The audience's high hopes were not misplaced. This is a solid production of a very good play, brought to life by an excellent cast. It succeeds in humanizing the civil rights leaders who too often appear in history books as pure angels of perseverance and moral clarity. For example, it's fairly well known today that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a philanderer, but here we witness Rev. James Lawrence (the charismatic Jonathan L. Dent) – roughly based on Dr. King – struggling in a very human way with this major character flaw even as he doggedly pursues his vision of equality and freedom for his people.
It's 1962, and after unsuccessful attempts to galvanize the Movement in several other cities, Rev. Lawrence has arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, "the most segregated city in America," with his lieutenant, the emotional minister Henry Evans (the impressive Cliff Odle). They're joined by a newcomer, Bill Rutherford (Cedric Lilly), just arrived from Europe and something of a dandy. Though out of touch with the daily struggles and religious zeal of blacks in the American South, Rutherford brings badly needed organizational skills, so the three do their best to get along, with volatile and often humorous results. Concisely handled in the script, this interplay provides an important strand of the drama, focusing attention on the highly imperfect natures of the civil rights leaders who became legends.
One thing the leaders must find is a "good Negro" – a figurehead victim of racial injustice with a spotless character as well as a moving story. In Birmingham they encounter Claudette Sullivan, beaten and arrested for allowing her four-year-old daughter to use a whites-only bathroom. Not only is Claudette tossed in jail, the little girl too spends hours in lockup. Educated, well-spoken, living a quiet life without troublesome associations or activities, Claudette (the quietly dignified Marvelyn McFarlane) seems perfect. Unfortunately her husband Pelzie (the superbly smoldering James Milord) isn't at all keen on subjecting himself and his family to the murderous dangers of the spotlight, and with very good reason.
All this takes place under the watchful eyes (actually the electronic ears) of two FBI agents, who bug the Movement's offices and enlist the prejudiced but not entirely unreasonable Tommy Rowe (the excellent Greg Maraio) to infiltrate the local KKK, hoping to head off any violence. They also do everything they can to impugn the characters of the civil rights leaders, leading to a powerful confrontation between the philandering Lawrence and his sturdy wife, Corinne (the very fine Kris Sidberry) – but also, ironically, to shocking violence. It comes in a masterly stroke of surprise, and we spend the play's last few scenes aquiver.
Boston area theatergoers have a great way to start their year and this well-acted, well-directed production deserves attention beyond the Martin Luther King Day celebration. If you're in the area, don't miss it.
The Good Negro runs through Feb. 6 at the Boston Center for the Arts.