It’s a toss up as to whether Race Plays or Holocaust Plays are the favorite genre for guilty liberals to enjoy these days. After the election of Obama, many of the narratives that fed aging activists and wannabe Lefties’ egos now feel impossibly out of date. It’s the feeling I had during Tracy Scott Wilson’s The Good Negro at The Public. Too bad, because the idea of the superlative minority figure that must rise against all stereotypes to prove himself should be questioned during the hyperbolic ascendency of Obama as president—and it’s impossible not to think of Obama while watching the Good Negro.
The play follows a charismatic preacher named James Lawrence (Curtis McClaren) that is awfully like Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the FBI and its actions to monitor and influence both sides of the civil rights movement. Most of the writing lacks subtlety and therefore the actors play their parts broadly and without much nuance. We’re supposed to understand this time, these problems—no need for newness. The most provocative thing is the implied sexual relationship between Lawrence and Claudette Sullivan (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), who plays a character who helps spark a movement in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s as if Wilson wants us to imagine Dr. King getting sloppy with Rosa Parks. Scandalous!
The play is long and tedious at most points and could have been severely cut without hindering the message. The beautifully muted and minimalist stage doesn’t offer much relief; a severe rake to the stage makes everything seem a little unstable, but ultimately everything keeps on going at the same plodding pace.
During intermission I overheard several gray and grizzled men—both black and white—relating how they remembered when they battled for civil rights. “It was just like this,” they stated. And you could see the shock that the fight seemed to be over at long last. And isn’t that why these sorts of plays continue to be written and watched? So that men and women can congratulate themselves on fighting the good fight? I only wish Wilson had done more to question the core idea of the “good negro.” The pressure that Barack and Michelle Obama must feel, and that there children will also inherit, must be incredible. Near the final moments of the play, preacher Lawrence sums it up in one flat and stolid statement:
“The whole world is watching. They are waiting for us to fuck it up. They are waiting for us to talk wrong, walk wrong, be wrong and then they can say see? Look at them niggers. No better than animals. No better. I told you.”
The Good Negro, through April 19, at The Public Theater, 212-967-7555.