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Columnist
Goodman's 'Good Negro' spotlights the men behind civil rights fight
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Columnist

Claudette and Pelzie Sullivan (Nambi E. Kelley and Tory O. Davis) pay a terrible price for their participation in the 1960s civil rights movement in Tracey Scott Wilson's "The Good Negro."

 

Billy Eugene Jones plays the charismatic minister and civil rights leader James Lawrence and Karen Aldridge stars as his loyal wife Corinne in Goodman Theatre's Chicago-area premiere of "The Good Negro," Tracey Scott Wilson's fictionalized account of the early 1960s civil rights movement.

 

The Rev. James Lawrence (Billy Eugene Jones) struggles with personal demons while he struggles against segregation in "The Good Negro," running through June 6 at the Goodman Theatre.

 

FBI agents Paul Moore (John Hoogenakker, left) and Steve Lane (Mick Weber, center) pressure Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. (Dan Waller) to inform on the Ku Klux Klan in Tracey Scott Wilson's "The Good Negro."

 

Demetrios Troy, left, Billy Eugene Jones and Teagle F. Bougere play civil rights leaders struggling for justice in Tracey Scott Wilson's provocative fictionalized drama, "The Good Negro."

 

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Published: 5/14/2010 12:06 AM

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"Do what you have to do."

That loaded phrase recurs several times throughout "The Good Negro," Tracey Scott Wilson's unflinching, fictionalized account of the civil rights movement during the early 1960s. Uttered by segregation opponents and proponents alike, it reflects an unwavering commitment by Wilson's main characters - imperfect men championing a noble cause - to achieve their goals, despite the terrible price their efforts exact.

Dense and deftly written, "The Good Negro" addresses conflicts within the movement to desegregate the South, as well as the challenges it faces from outside. Most significantly, Wilson's drama offers an engrossing portrait of the men behind the movement which is expertly realized in Goodman Theatre's Chicago area-premiere from resident director Chuck Smith. His canny, fluid production is perfectly cast and impressively acted by an ensemble that portrays these complex characters with candor and sensitivity.

Inspired by real civil rights leaders, the story's characters make for compelling figures. These are men whose admirable goals are offset by messy personal lives. They have the ability to inspire the masses and are willing to employ - some might say exploit - a few to ensure freedom for all.

The play unfolds in Birmingham, Ala., during the early 1960s at a time when the movement's leader, the dedicated but flawed Reverend James Lawrence (an intense, charismatic Billy Eugene Jones playing a role that recalls the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.), has struggled to sustain a successful protest against segregation.

Assisting Lawrence is newcomer Bill Rutherford (Mount Prospect's Demetrios Troy), a northerner whose reserve and caution clash with the more aggressive, impulsive style of Lawrence's longtime confidante and fellow minister Henry Evans (the magnetic Teagle F. Bougere in the Dr. Ralph Abernathy role). The trio believe they have a standard-bearer in Claudette Sullivan (Nambi E. Kelley), a sympathetic young mother beaten and jailed after taking her 4-year-old daughter into a whites-only restroom in a Birmingham department store because the "colored" restroom was out of order.

Claudette satisfies their desire for a "good Negro," an upstanding African American who can serve as a symbol of oppression and, at the same time, rally public sentiment to the cause. Less enthusiastic is Claudette's unschooled but perceptive husband Pelzie (the stellar Tory O. Davis in a performance laudable for its depth and sincerity), who fears retaliation. Also involved in the struggle is Lawrence's long-suffering wife Corinne (the brilliant Karen Aldridge delivering a powerful display of dignity under duress), who is all too aware of the moral failings of her womanizing husband

Meanwhile, FBI agents, played with a civil servant's practiced resignation by Mick Weber and John Hoogenakker, are under orders to surveil Lawrence and his colleagues to uncover ways to "expose, disrupt, discredit and neutralize" him and by extension the movement. They're also charged with keeping tabs on the Ku Klux Klan. To that end, they enlist local bigot and bully Gary Thomas Rowe - named after a real-life FBI informer and played with chilling nonchalance by Dan Waller - to infiltrate the KKK, an organization that has its own way of neutralizing freedom-seeking blacks.

It all plays out on Riccardo Hernandez's handsome but spare set featuring a knotty pine backdrop and illuminated by Robert Christen's narrow shards of fluorescent light. The set consists of two identical wooden desks around which Lawrence and his advisers and the feds devise their strategies.

Wilson's observations of human failings and faulty judgment aren't particularly revelatory. Throughout history, less-than-perfect people have fought the good fight. And often they have prevailed. But Wilson draws provocative parallels between the opposing parties, revealing the dissension that affects their ranks, the desperation underscoring their ambition and the determination to achieve their goals by any means necessary.

"The Good Negro"

Three and a half stars

Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org

Showtimes: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday through June 6. Also 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 25; 2 p.m. Thursdays, May 27 and June 3; no 2 p.m. show Saturday, May 15; no 7:30 p.m. show Sunday, May 30

Running time: Two hours, 40 minutes with intermission

Tickets: $25-$71

Parking: $19 with validation in the Government Center Self Park, off Lake Street

Rating: For adults, strong language and subject matter