In the ’50s and ‘60s in Birmingham, Alabama, there were so many Ku Klux Klan bombings, one black neighborhood was dubbed Dynamite Hill.
Yet in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. came to this fortress of segregation. Birmingham was a last-ditch effort for Dr. King as a civil rights leader. He’d triumphed in Montgomery with the bus boycott, failed in Georgia and Tennessee. And it was in Birmingham that his street protests led to the most infamous bombing of all, the murder of four schoolgirls in a church basement.
The drama, The Good Negro, offers a character based on Dr. King – he’s a more fallible figure here than the plaster saint we often see. The Dallas Theater Center is staging the world premiere of The Good Negro with New York’s Public Theater, where the play will open next spring. As it stands, The Good Negro is a savvy, stirring drama. But it tries to convey the real-life complexities and stakes of the civil rights struggle – even as it tries to free itself from that history, to stand on its own as a stage play. (At more than two and a half hours, it’s also a little long.)
As a dramatic conflict, the civil rights movement is hard to beat; it’s a life-and-death struggle for the soul of America — and for the very existence of some Americans. Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson has drawn on Carry Me Home, Diane McWhorter’s tremendous history of the Birmingham battles. Wilson has fictionalized Dr. King as James Lawrence, while her Ralph Abernathy figure is called Henry. Fighting to desegregate Birmingham’s stores, the preachers repeatedly quarrel over egos and tactics, as in this scene between Lawrence and Henry.
Lawrence: What are we fighting for here, Henry?
Henry: He’s trying to make us look like fools. But you done gone too far now.
Lawrence: What are we fighting for here, Henry? Huh? Tell me.
Henry: Tell you?
Lawrence: I’m trying to end segregation. What you doing?
Henry: Don’t preach at me, Jimmy!
Lawrence: If you can’t go on, if you can’t put your petty pride aside and go on – then leave.
In public, Lawrence must be a pillar of righteousness for black freedom. Yet he says the only time he truly feels free is when he’s un-righteous with a woman in a hotel room. His sexual affairs endanger the movement, endanger his marraige when federal agents mail his wife a tape from a wiretap. The Good Negro is full of characters who become what they fear. The FBI agents are trying to find a Communist conspiracy. Yet it’s they who conspire with a violent Klan informant. One agent objects.
Paul: We’re not bodyguards, we’re not police.
Steve: We’re breaking the law.
Paul: What law? We are the law.
Steve: This whole thing is ridiculous.
Paul: Yeah, well. We did our jobs.
Playwright Wilson has said she wants to get past our mythic heroes and villains to the real conflicts and costs of civil rights. She’s right that in portraying Lawrence as troubled, she makes him more compelling. Yet her supporting characters are still the vivid ones here. They don’t compete with our memories of Dr. King. Under director Liesl Tommy, actors like J. Bernard Calloway as Henry or Steven Walters and Brian Wallace as the agents are free to be funny and offhand.
It’s Dallas actor Billy Jones who bears the burden of history. As Lawrence, Jones is splendid when he preaches, splendid when he crumbles. But on opening night, he didn’t have the air of authority of a Dr. King. He didn’t convince us that, yes, for this man, people would defy police dogs.
Inevitably, stage plays simplify events. It’s a human drama we’re watching, not a history lesson. But in focusing on the humans here, Wilson has shrunk their risks and achievements. At one point, an agent declares there’s a war on. You have the movement on one side, the Klan on the other.
But what the civil rights movement confronted in Birmingham wasn’t just the Klan. It was Governor George Wallace and the state militia, Sheriff Bull Connor and the police. It was the city’s newspapers, its banks, its legal establishment. It was US Steel, which had funded segregationist efforts for years. It was an entire way of life.
That was the real conflict. And as good as The Good Negro is — and it is good — it only hints at it.