History plays

The Good Negro from Company One; Harriet Jacobs in Central Square; Indulgences at New Rep
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  January 29, 2010

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Photo: Milord McFarlane
THE GOOD NEGRO: James Milord (here with Marvelyn McFarlane) ponders becoming a poster man for the civil-rights movement.

Tracey Scott Wilson manages to knock off Martin Luther King Jr.'s halo without removing the glow. The flawed hero of Wilson's historical drama The Good Negro (at the BCA Plaza through February 6) is obviously based on the King of the early 1960s — though the playwright places her facsimile at the epicenter of an amalgamated story inspired by the courage, strategizing, and divisiveness of the civil-rights movement, the particular brutality of the Birmingham Ku Klux Klan, the geeky chicanery of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls. Not without some trepidation, but reasoning that the civil-rights pioneers' imperfections make their accomplishments more inspiring, Wilson dares to render King and cohort warts, womanizing, infighting, and all. The result is a fiction that for the most part rings true, its veracity underlined by an urgent, earnest area premiere by Company One in which 23-year-old Jonathan L. Dent renders the charismatic determination if not the rhetorical fervor of the decade-older King.

Commissioned by New York's Public Theatre, Wilson's play debuted there last March after a tryout at Dallas Theater Center. To avoid conflict with the historical record, Wilson sets The Good Negro in 1962, in the Alabama city Edward R. Murrow dubbed the "Johannesburg of America." King stand-in James Lawrence has recently arrived with right-hand-reverend Henry Evans and newly recruited European import Bill Rutherford, and the three are looking to hitch their non-violent wagon to a "good Negro" to whom bad things have happened. When otherwise law-abiding Claudette Sullivan is beaten and arrested for taking her four-year-old daughter into a whites-only department-store restroom, they have the cause célèbre, they hope, to launch a thousand marchers. But the down-home Evans and the bean-counting Rutherford don't get along. Sullivan's husband is apprehensive about becoming a poster man for the movement. And Lawrence's inability to stick to his own bed threatens to derail his best brave intentions.

The play is well and probingly written, its oft-interfaced interactions complex — though a subplot in which a couple of wiretap-happy FBI nerds recruit real-life loose cannon Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. to infiltrate the Klan threatens to jump the rails. Summer L. Williams's production retains clarity even when, for dramatic contrast, several things are going on at once, and it makes atmospheric use of historical footage projected onto the wooden slats of Cristina Todesco's set. As the fussy, upbeat Rutherford and the earthier, more pulpit-friendly Evans, Cedric Lilly and Cliff Odle extract humor as well as tension from the feud between the henchmen (who at one point squabble over the badge of having one's house bombed). James Milord is a brooding presence as reluctant husband Pelzie. And given the human face Wilson puts on history, the climax is as shocking as if we shouldn't have seen it coming.

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