The Good Negro by Becca Browne
Plays about social injustices are tough plays to write, to direct, and to act in, especially when the topic can eaily be portrayed in a sterotypical light. The plays can easily devolve to cliched familiar stories. The civil rights movement is no different. Everyone knows the struggle, the heartache, the violence, so what new information can be received from a fiction play?
The Good Negro written by Tracey Scott Wilson and directed by Chuck Smith goes behind the scenes of the civil rights movement, into the world of the leaders. The slight insanity behind great movements is revealed throughout the play. Every accusation by the enemy is merely proof that the movement is working, and all opposed are afraid because “they’ve really got something”. Every atrocity of human injustice is publicized and manipulated to drive the movement forward and gain support. We see the idolized leaders broken down to reveal sinful human actions. This not only hurts to watch, but hurts to understand. The position of a movement leader is so fragile, they are often guided by delusions of what is need for change. The struggle for how to run a movement is well captured. But the question, “How do you create a successful movement?” is never clearly answered. Nor does Wilson mean for this question to be answered.
Three factions dominate the play. The civil rrights group led by James, Henry, and Rutherford; the Ku Klux Klan infiltrated by Tommy; and the FBI headed by the two best agents in Birmingham, Alabama. The writer does a good job developing all three movements, while maintaining focus on the civil rights group. James and his friends fight for justice, the Klan fights for white supremacy, and the FBI just fights to stop everything. The FBI have an interesting role. While trying to stop the movement they also send spies to the Klan. It’s hard to tell whose side they’re on, answering only to the orders of the “old man” whose character is never fully explained.
What was extraordinary about The Good Negro was the parallel between movement tactics of the Klan and the civil rights leaders. Tommy and James both give speeches to rouse their audiences into a passionate movement, and the speeches are strikingly similar. Both push for action and are moving in their own way, almost mirroring each other but appealing to different issues of concern. At the end, James and Tommy speak in unison and it’s a very powerful way to illustrate how the groups run the same way. It is the message that makes the difference.
The Good Negro was an excellent way to end the Goodman’s season. Not only did it attract a more diverse audience, but it presented an interesting, painful, and unforgettable look at history.