The Good Negro

by Tracy Scott  Wilson
Directed by Chuck Smith
Starring Billy Eugene Jones, Dan Waller, Nambi E. Kelley, Demetrios Troy, Teagle F. Bougere, Karen Aldridge, Mick Weber, John Hoogenakker, Tory O. Davis
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago
production web site:
May 1 through June 6, 2010

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 30, 2010 (final dress)

I had an “in” because of my pal Willa and a request over drinks and theatre conversations earlier in the week.  So I assemble on the Mezzanine level of the Goodman Theatre’s main proscenium stage at the appointed time this pre-preview, pre-opening night with scores of other folks who know someone who know someone.  No tickets are exchanged.  Little organization to the adventure other than we are here because we knew to be here.  Apparently the director for this final dress rehearsal wanted us all up and away from the action so we stand waiting by the Mezzanine doors.  Programs were handed out until they were gone.  We spend 10-15 minutes standing, then doors open and we file in and are funneled in order (don’t jump out of line) into the first several rows. One by one by one.  And technicians have the full run of the large space, the mainstage, the orchestra level, below.  And as usual with final dress, the production photographer was snapping, capturing moments for press and archival purposes.

From my distant vantage point, I am  transported by the context, by the structure, by the story telling, by most of the acting.  Classical lines (visual, conceptual, structure) and visual and aural and historical heft of the stories.

The Good Negro gives us a personal and political road into fictionalized events in an unnamed Alabama city in 1962.  Director Chuck Smith and playwright Tracey Scott Wilson present stories of three overlapping adventures that make these events throb with life.

We begin with a projected image: march.  flags flying.  right to left (stage left to stage right) black and white.  movement.  commitment.  hope.  The story of the personal lives and professional movtivations (and egos) unfolds.   Human stories in a social movement’s context.  Dyads established: two black ministers, two wives, two white policemen.  A story of a small child exposed to Jim Crow rules (“White” and “Colored” washrooms and a traumatizing arrest when the wrong one is used) and how her family and two young preaching leaders in the local Civil Rights movement and two surveilling FBI agents respond to this event.

Karen Aldridge creates a loving and strong wife (Corrinne Lawrence) to one of the young preachers.  John Hoogenakker creates an eerie and powerful and reasonable agent, evoking his multi-edged performance of a man playing many roles in Writers’ Theatre’s Puppetmaster of Lodz of several seasons ago.  Nambi E. Kelley embodies the mother of the child at the center of the story (a child intelligently NOT dramatized by the playwright)  — a child wronged by social conventions, a child whose mother only wants to protect her, and a child whose story is used in various ways by the adults around her.  These and all of the performances haunt me.  The entire production enthralls me.

Riccardo Hernandez‘s set design and Robert Christen‘s light design give us a well oiled and warm yet spare palette on which to paint these stories.   Oiled aged wood forms walls, floor, and ceiling and simple white neon becomes alternately a cross (church), horizontal overheard lights (federal investigators and/or police interrogators), and house roof angles (a home).  Occasionally words are projected, phrases highlighting or naming a scene, in simple white light. and in this way couched by warm wood and simple structures, triads telling a story in triads, the focus is on the words and the events and the very human stories of a very human time.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 14, 2010)

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