The Good Negro gives the audience a “Good” time! by Angelique Boyd
The Good Negro is a page ripped out of a history book. Many leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, etc. are always given god-like qualities in history. We were told that they never gave up and succeeded through every possible obstacle thrown in their face. The Good Negro shows that this was not always the case. Leaders James “Jimmy” Lawrence (Billy Eugene Jones), Henry Evans (Teagle F. Bougere), and Bill Rutherford(Demetrios Troy) are fictional characters in The Good Negro that are based off the non-fictional leaders of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama. Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson made sure she exposed those characters fully. The purpose is not to point out flaws, but to the expose the humanity of the characters, revealing them as fallible beings. What makes James Lawrence, Henry Evans, and Bill Rutherford leaders is that despite their flaws they were able to learn and succeed. They are people like you and me. This play is about their journey, their actions and the consequences on the journey, and how the leaders dealt with the forces against them.
In the 1960s, Birmingham was called “Bomingham,” because of all the violence sparked by racial hatred. The Jim Crow laws kept blacks in their low positions and police brutality was rampant. T. Eugene “Bull” Conner, Commissioner of Public safety from 1937 to 1953 and 1957 to 1963, was one person responsible for the violence because of his poor management, abuse of power, and strong belief in racial segregation.
The Good Negro starts off with the story of, Claudette Sullivan (Nambi E. Kelly), taken to jail because she had her little 4-year-old girl use the “White” bathroom instead of the “Colored” bathroom. The little girl was also put in a jail cell for a couple of hours. Reverend Jimmy and Henry wanted to use this incident as a tool to spark the movement in Birmingham. This was the start to the play revealing the political side, both negative and positive, of the civil rights movement.
Although civil rights leaders made their decisions based on the want of equality, their decisions were harmful. In the play, Jimmy and Henry decided to show Claudette’s daughter to marchers, so they could be motivated to march. Partly because of this Claudette and her husband Pelzie’s (Torry O. Davis) house was bombed. Their 4-year-old daughter died in the accident. While Claudette’ decision to expose her daughter’s situation was brave and honorable, the three leaders used their story as propaganda to get people on their side. It is a hard thing to digest, but the civil rights movement was filled with propaganda. To decide if the propaganda was positive or negative is sometimes hard to say. An example of this propaganda is when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. decided to march in Birmingham after Bull Connor became mayor of Birmingham. This showed the nation that police brutality was an issue in Birmingham, and needed to be stopped. This would have never happened if Dr. King did not take Bull Connor’s impatience into consideration.
The FBI also played a huge role in this play. FBI agents tapped into the phone lines of Jimmy, Henry, and Rutherford to find information that would cause the public to go against them and cause infighting among the movement’s leaders. In Jimmy, Henry, and Rutherford’s case this was easy. Henry Evans was a man who strongly believed in the civil rights movement, but he loved the spotlight. When Bill Rutherford, a white man, came from Geneva with his knowledge of finance and economics, it helped the movement become more organized and successful. Henry did not like the fact that a white man from up north was taking his spotlight. When the FBI found the letter Rutherford wrote to his wife about his frustrations working with Jimmy and Henry, the FBI used the information to write a newspaper article about how the trio had too many problems within the group, and that they would eventually split-up. In Rutherford’s letter, he mentioned that he suspected Jimmy was having affairs with different women. The FBI recorded Jimmy having sex with Claudette, and it was sent to his home phone. Unfortunately, Corrine (Karen Aldridge), Jimmy’s wife, was there to listen to it, and she found out the reason why her husband was coming home late.
The FBI also involved the Ku Klux Klan in their work. Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. (Dan Waller) was a FBI informant in the play that was asked to join the KKK to find out what their plans were in dealing with the Blacks in Birmingham. FBI agents Steve Lane (Mick Weber) and Paul Moore (John Hoogenakker) brought the comedy to the play. They were mostly bored, and they were just doing their job. Although they weren’t on the side of Jimmy, Henry, and Rutherford, it was hard not to like them or empathize with them. This also goes for Rowe because he was being used by the FBI.
The acting in The Good Negro was excellent. When Corrine says her monologue after she finds out Jimmy had many affairs, the feeling in her words was so strong that almost everybody in the audience had to “mhmm” or nod in approval. Pelzie, Claudette’s husband, was a changed man at the end of the play. He had been through a lot after his wife decided to be involved in the movement, but he was able to give Jimmy advice at the end of the play. I think Torry O. Davis did an amazing job at the role of Pelzie. I also liked how Director Chuck Smith decided to have Rowe’s initiation speech into the KKK parallel to Henry’s sermon at the church. I thought showing the difference between the two groups was very effective and helped the play move along smoothly.
I strongly recommend this play; however, it may be inappropriate for those under 15-years-old because of the profanity and sexual elements. The Good Negro reveals a different side of Black History that we have all heard every Black History Month. The characters in this play are people that are easy to relate to or spot sometime in life. They do not only exist in the 1960s. I am in love with all the characters, and I could not stop thinking about The Good Negro the next day. The plot is still in my head today! You will not be disappointed when you spend your money at the box office. Get ready for a memorable experience from history!