by Dalt Wonk
The Good Negro, currently getting a searing production at the Anthony Bean Community Theater, examines the Civil Rights movement as a struggle by imperfect individuals trying to combat institutionalized injustice.
Minister James Lawrence (Jarrod Smith), loosely based on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his close ally Henry Evans (Damien A. Moses) set up shop in Birmingham, Ala., in 1962 to fight segregation. One of the problems that has dogged the movement is finding “the good Negro,” a leader who will hold up under the pressure and intense scrutiny of their opponents.
Claudette Sullivan (Samantha Beaulieu) has taken her 4-year-old into a whites-only bathroom. Sullivan is beaten by a so-called citizen-deputy (T.J. Toups) and her daughter is arrested and put in prison. It’s an egregious example of humiliation suffered by African Americans, but Claudette is reluctant to get involved with the movement.
At the side of the stage, we see a grotesque reminder of the scrutiny given to leaders and even victims. FBI agents (Carlos M. Gonzalez and John Gore) have bugged Lawrence’s meetings and hotel rooms. J. Edgar Hoover is obsessed with the idea that the movement is controlled by Communists. The FBI also hires the citizen-deputy to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan, but there doesn’t seem to be any intention of protecting protesters or African Americans who live in fear of racially-motivated violence.
Pelzie Sullivan (Tommy Bolds) is a simple man, and he distrusts the well-spoken, well-dressed men recruiting his wife. He loses his job after he is seen talking to the black leaders and thus stigmatized as a trouble-maker. Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson is not interested in presenting an idealized portrait and instead she shows the personal complications and costs of the struggle.
Rev. Lawrence is courageous and cunning but also flawed. He can’t resist trying to seduce Claudette, and to make matters worse, the FBI tapes their conversations. They send a tape to Lawrence’s wife Corrine (Brittney M. James) and threaten to share it with the press. Meanwhile, the FBI is undermining the movement by spreading rumors and leaking stories to the press.
As the movement frays, Sullivan suggests letting her daughter speak at a meeting, but it’s a rough conflict and even a child isn’t spared its viciousness.
Under Anthony Bean’s direction, the cast in this thought-provoking drama gave committed performances. While The Good Negro might be trimmed some, particularly the FBI sequence, it is a fictional docudrama of the highest order.
The Good Negro
Anthony Bean Theater
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Nov. 4-5; 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6