"What would posterity think we were? Demi-gods? We're men, no more, no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed." So says Benjamin Franklin in a climactic moment in the musical 1776, which aimed to realistically dramatize and humanize the iconic men behind the American Revolution.
By the same token, in her engrossing new drama The Good Negro at the Public Theater, Tracey Scott Wilson aims to display the men and women behind the American Civil Rights Movement not as one-dimensional heroes, but as real individuals with human flaws, problems and emotions.
Wilson immediately shocks the audience's senses with a short opening scene in which Claudette Sullivan (Joniece Abbott-Pratt ), a young black mother, is beaten and arrested for having encouraged her 4-year-old daughter to use a whites-only bathroom. After news of this event hits the press, three black community leaders decide that she and her child represent the kind of victims who would attract sympathy and build momentum for the Civil Rights Movement.
Charismatic black preacher James Lawrence (Curtis McClarin), who is very loosely based on Martin Luther King Jr., is depicted as one with the potential to lead the movement to its eventual success, but risks its downfall due to his womanizing ways and sloppy organizational skills. Personal tensions between him and his two right-hand men (J. Bernard Calloway and LeRoy McClain) also threaten their success.
At nearly three hours, Wilson's play, which is occasionally marred by repetitive and expositional dialogue, would benefit from some cutting here and there. Nevertheless, it is currently receiving a gripping, gorgeously acted production from director Liesl Tommy.
Using an expansive hardwood floor stage with little other scenery, Tommy cinematically stages several scenes simultaneously from different corners of the stage. For instance, while civil rights leaders plot and plan, we can see Federal agents secretly listening to them via wiretaps.
A program note from Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater, makes a specific point of noting that in spite of the recent election of Barack Obama, Wilson has been working on this play for four years. Still, the play certainly speaks to our current economic and political situation, reminding us how even the most promising and hopeful leaders are still prone to occasional disappointments and frustrations.