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Saints, Villains, and Real Men

Two plays, The Good Negro and Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, explore the myths and realities of black life in the south.

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The Good Negro Goodman Theatre | Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South Viaduct Theater

Because the campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, in the early 1960s pitted nonviolent churchfolk against cops with German shepherds and high-pressure hoses, it's hard not to see it as a battle between saints and villains. As Eric Sevareid of the CBS Evening News put it, "A snarling police dog set upon a human being is recorded in the permanent photoelectric file of every human being's brain."

In The Good Negro, now at the Goodman Theatre after a premiere production at New York's Public Theater last year, playwright Tracey Scott Wilson seeks to restore some moral complexity to the story. Her fictionalized version of the events, which revolves around a Martin Luther King Jr.-like civil rights leader, shows the righteous cause of desegregation continually compromised by all-too-human players plagued by doubt, infighting, personal weakness, and the classic dilemma of whether the general good merits the sacrifice of individuals.

The action starts with the violent arrest of young mother Claudette (Nambi E. Kelley), who's taken her four-year-old daughter into the whites-only restroom of a department store because the one for colored women was out of order. A trio of black activists—charismatic, media-savvy Reverend James Lawrence (Billy Eugene Jones); his coarse, showy second-in-command, Henry (Teagle F. Bougere); and fastidious, stats-happy Rutherford (Demetrios Troy)—immediately seize on Claudette's case as a cause celebre. She's perfect for their purposes—a "good Negro," attractive, well-spoken, and respectable.

Claudette's blue-collar husband, Pelzie, is quite a bit less polished, and through him Wilson explores an aspect of the civil rights movement that tends to get overlooked: the divide between its middle-class leaders and the dirt-poor blacks who often felt estranged from it. Pelzie's resentment of the "sweet-talking preacher mens" and his resistance to becoming their pawn make him far and away Wilson's most interesting character, especially as played by Tory O. Davis, who gives him a powerful air of sullen reserve.

Reverend Lawrence eventually feels guilty about exploiting the couple and their child for the movement's ends. But first he's got his hands full refereeing his colleagues' petty squabbles, obsessing over the public's perception of what he's doing, and attending to his sizable sexual appetite—much to the consternation of his long-suffering wife, Corinne. To provide counterpoint and exposition, Wilson periodically checks in with two FBI agents (Mick Weber and John Hoogenakker) who are simultaneously keeping tabs on Lawrence via wiretaps and on the local Ku Klux Klan via a cartoonish informer from whom Wilson withholds the intricacy she grants most of the other characters. That deficit isn't made up onstage, either. Where Karen Aldridge adds depth to the shallowly written role of Corinne by suggesting wells of rage beneath a superficial patience, Dan Waller's informer is nothing but a mouth-breathing redneck from first to last.

Waller excepted, Chuck Smith's sophisticated, well-oiled production moves fluidly from public speech to private action, adroitly creating an atmosphere of moral flux. But as the violence intensifies, he can't mask the central flaw in Wilson's script: its lack of a sense of proportion. Archival images of actual Birmingham protestors, compiled by Mike Tutaj and projected onto the large wooden wall that constitutes Riccardo Hernandez's set, inadvertently illustrate the problem. Confronted with the sight of men and women in the jaws of dogs and on the wrong end of hoses shooting water at a volume strong enough to knock them over, you can't help but wonder if maybe Wilson is making too big a deal of Dr. King's affairs and publicity-seeking. She reminds us that great deeds are accomplished by flawed humans, but fails to reconcile the forest with the trees.

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