Saints, Villains, and Real Men | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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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.

In his solo show, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, writer/performer E. Patrick Johnson also trains his focus on the trees. But in his case the choice pays off handsomely. While Wilson eventually runs up against well-documented history, Johnson traffics in the vagaries of reminiscence.

Of the show's titular beverage Johnson says, "There are as many recipes as there are southerners." His mother's calls for ten Lipton teabags and a tooth-punishing two-and-a-half cups of sugar. Back home in Arkansas, my mom uses a half to three-quarters of a cup—and always, always Luzianne teabags, because, as the packaging assures you, it's "specially blended for iced tea." And as it goes with sweet tea recipes, so it goes with the stories of the 13 men Johnson has collected and brings to life during the evening.

The oldest of the men was born in 1912, the youngest in 1982, and there are representatives from almost every decade in between. They come from all over the south—rural spots in Mississippi and North Carolina and metropolises like New Orleans and Atlanta. Johnson groups their narratives into categories announced with supertitles ("Coming Out," "Sex," "Love/Relationships," and so on) and weaves in his own recollections of growing up black and gay in Hickory, North Carolina. Johnson evokes each man's distinctive personality and, especially, his peculiar way of putting things. The oldest, a nonagenarian called Countess Vivian, says of discovering that he liked men, "I don't know what caused it, it just come right on, you know?" On the subject of AIDS, a dandyish Atlantan asks, "Can you imagine the Broadway shows we would have had if we hadn't had AIDS? Shows I would have been star of?"

Nowhere is the multiplicity of experience more evident than in Sweet Tea's hands-down highlight, a section called "Church Sissies," in which the men describe their fraught relationships with the black church. One argues for the church as a refuge for "educated, sensitive, articulate, bright young men—and guess who that just described." Another talks himself dizzy trying to justify its homophobia. Still another icily rejects the institution altogether, saying, "If you don't like my packaging but desire my gifts, you shall be granted neither."

Not all of Sweet Tea has as much bite and nuance as "Church Sissies", but Johnson never sentimentalizes or overplays his subjects—despite the cornpone augured by Grant Sabin's downhome, tree-and-front-porch set and director Daniel Alexander Jones's heavy reliance on Mason jars (Johnson makes tea in one, pulls ribbons out of another, and addresses still another as if it were Yorick's skull). Johnson's writing and performance avoid cliches and tricks, succeeding on the merits of a good ear, a gift for mimicry, and empathy to spare.   

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