Monday, March 16, 2009

The Good Negro


By Tracey Scott Wilson. Directed by Liesl Tommy. The Public Theater. (CLOSED)

Aside from Theatermania's Dan Bacalzo, critics are warmly receptive, sometimes effusive, to Tracey Scott Wilson's The Good Negro, a fictional play based on actual events of the Civil Rights Movement. For the most part, Liesl Tommy earns praise for her direction, keeping the intertwined story lines easy to follow, with help from Clint Ramos's sets and Lap Chi Chu's lighting. The cast is lauded all around, with John Simon going so far as to list all their names. A few critics complain about the length, but most don't mind the almost three-hour running time. A+
(Martin Denton) The Public Theater's production, helmed with extraordinary skill by Liesl Tommy, is superlative in every department. The spare design by Clint Ramos on the deep stage of LuEsther Hall makes the pace lightning-quick and the transitions thrillingly cinematic. The ensemble is outstanding, with particular kudos due Curtis McClarin as James, J. Bernard Calloway as Henry, and Francois Battiste as Pelzie, who create characters who are all larger than life and achingly human. Quincy Dunn Baker and Brian Wallace make the two G-men as complex as they should be, while Erik Jensen gets the poisoned nature of Rowe exactly right. Rounding out the company are Joneice Abbott-Pratt (Claudette), LeRoy McClain (Rutherford), and Rachel Nicks (Corinne). Something deep in Wilson's play, beyond its account of the early days of the Civil Rights movement, sets it apart to make it resonant in 2009. James is a flawed, very human man, despite his immense and unwavering vision and commitment. The more we relish how much we know about our leaders these days, the more we seem ready to pick them apart. Perhaps we should not.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) Events, personal and public, are covered with increasing rapidity, but Wilson does not allow the fast pace or polemics to overwhelm the people on stage. Aided by a superb ensemble of actors and some lively, often intense dialogue, the playwright manages to create a parade of credible characters. Lawrence, portrayed with suitable intensity by Curtis McClarin, works with two other organizers (played by J. Bernard Calloway and LeRoy McClain), one folksy, the other more urbane. These men are studies in contrast, reflecting the diversity of the people who fought the battle for civil rights.

That Sounds Cool A
(Aaron Riccio) At one point, twin sermons from Rowe and Lawrence overlap, joining on the line "Help us my friends"; their passions are identical, their audiences just happen to be different. This effect is enhanced by Liesl Tommy's expert direction--though these scenes are miles apart in content, they share the same plain wooden stage, the same chairs and tables. Scenes don't end, they just shift focus, as when Lawrence suddenly fades out, his presence overshadowed by the FBI's arrival, his voice replaced by the tape they've made of him. Additionally, thanks to quick lights from Lap Chi Chu and an excellent sound design from Daniel Baker, the audience often becomes the audience-within-a-play (i.e., the congregation), amens, murmurs, and all. While there is a degree of stage magic, there are no tricks going on--in fact, if anything, the lack of walls on Clint Ramos's set hints at the fact that we are meant to see everything.

Backstage A
(Andy Propst) There's almost a Shakespearean quality to Tracey Scott Wilson's The Good Negro, an examination of behind-the-scenes events during the civil rights movement in Alabama circa 1963. Wilson never mentions historical figures by name in this riveting, emotionally devastating play, opting instead to use archetypes of famous people and situations to paint a portrait of great yet flawed individuals caught up in world-changing events.

Talkin' Broadway A
(Matthew Murray) Wilson’s willingness to show her characters’ private flaws and disagreements as well as their unscratched public personas goes a long way to making her play the quickest two hours and 45 minutes in town: Aside from a couple of glimpse of Lawrence’s sermons (and, in one uproariously stiff case, Rutherford’s), there’s no preaching and there’s no excusing what they say or do. Worthwhile causes are achieved, she argues, in spite of humanity - and never in the absence of it. As a result, The Good Negro is never less than believable, and often is very close to profound.

Bloomberg News A
(John Simon) Liesl Tommy has directed the opaque drama as transparently as possible, and Clint Ramos’s simple scenery and costumes enhance the authenticity, as does Lap Chi Chu’s imaginative lighting. The cast is uniformly effective, and I can do no more than respectfully list their names: Curtis McClarin (James), Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Erik Jensen, Brian Wallace, Quincy Dunn- Baker, LeRoy McClain (Bill), J. Bernard Calloway (Henry), Rachel Nicks and Francois Battiste. The 165-minute play (including an intermission) abounds in moments of raucous humor, as well as passages of moving affection and friendship. Despite all the turbulence, setbacks, human frailty and shedding of innocent blood, the right does come out on top. And it leaves us with a fascinating quandary. Just who among these people is the eponymous Good Negro? Is it this one or that? Is it all or none, or is it a nonsensical term? Black or white, we are all, in various proportions, black-and-white, and none of us are pure and good.

Theater News Online
(Matt Windman) At nearly three hours, Wilson's play, which is occasionally marred by repetitive and expositional dialogue, would benefit from some cutting here and there. Nevertheless, it is currently receiving a gripping, gorgeously acted production from director Liesl Tommy. Using an expansive hardwood floor stage with little other scenery, Tommy cinematically stages several scenes simultaneously from different corners of the stage. For instance, while civil rights leaders plot and plan, we can see Federal agents secretly listening to them via wiretaps. A program note from Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater, makes a specific point of noting that in spite of the recent election of Barack Obama, Wilson has been working on this play for four years. Still, the play certainly speaks to our current economic and political situation, reminding us how even the most promising and hopeful leaders are still prone to occasional disappointments and frustrations.

CurtainUp A-
(Elyse Sommer) Both McClarin and Calloway give forceful performances, but the play's richness and dramatic impact derives from Wilson's inventiveness in creating her own vivid characters — white as well as black — to make The Good Negro a dynamic narrative... The Public Theater's intimate yet grand Lu Esther Hall echoes the play's structure of an epic viewed through the lens of individual stories. It's a setting that enables scenic designer Clint Ramos to create a large scale feeling to a simple scenic design — a lectern and a few strategically positioned tables and chairs on a deep wooden platform raised high enough but not too high for the actors to enter and exit at either side and to create a sense of the audience being not just onlookers but participants in the unfolding struggle for equal rights. Director Liesl Tommy's makes good use of this large but sparely furnished set to cross-cut between the three-way plot, letting the action shift fluidly from talk about an event to showing it actually happening.

The Daily News A-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Director Liesl Tommy guides her nine actors to strong performances. One of the great things about her staging is the way she places actors in scenes they’re not part of and, conversely, has characters talking to a person who’s nowhere to be found until the conversation is underway. It’s effective in that it boosts both tension and underscores a sense of isolation the characters are feeling. If there’s a shortfall to be found in the production, it’s that, at nearly three hours, it could benefit from judicious trimming.

Variety A-
(Sam Thielman) A large part of the dazzle is surprise: Wilson's lines are so speakable and easygoing they never betray a deeper meaning until the author wants them to, giving familiar material a new lease on life. Will segregation end? Will the charismatic, flawed Rev. Jimmy Lawrence (an astonishing Curtis McClarin) lead oppressed black Alabamians to equality and freedom? It probably sounds credulous, but we just don't know. In what must have been a Herculean effort, given the topic, Wilson also resists the urge to pontificate or moralize. Instead, "The Good Negro" is history as conversation, and that much more interesting.

The New York Times B+
(Charles Isherwood) Despite the fictional specifics, “The Good Negro” is fundamentally a dramatized chapter of history. The play will bring no fresh revelations or powerful insights for those well versed in this period, whether through the more forthright recent books about King and his cause or through the documentary “Eyes on the Prize.” Tossed into virtually every scene are handfuls of exposition about the mechanics of the movement, the more ham-fisted bits being proffered by the two F.B.I. agents listening in on meetings between Lawrence and his allies. (The subplot involving the agents’ recruitment of a local yokel to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan is among the less compelling aspects of the play.) But if “The Good Negro” suffers from the flaws endemic in straight-up documentary theater, they are mostly disguised by vibrant performances and a crisply paced production directed by Liesl Tommy. And the internecine squabbles within the movement will engross those with no deep grounding in the history, illuminating how numerous were the forces working against success, both from within and without.

Time Out New York B
(Adam Feldman) Wilson gives Lawrence a measure of complexity—ironically, he feels least different from white men when he's womanizing, the very activity for which some would tar him for conforming to racist stereotype—but his image-consciousness inevitably leaves him a little flat. Supporting characters and performances emerge more vividly: Erik Jensen as a pathetic KKK informant, Joniece Abbott-Pratt as a victim of police brutality, Francois Battiste as her mistrustful husband, and the wonderful J. Bernard Calloway as Lawrence's big, bluff, babyish right-hand man. In a play about the dangers of thinking in black and white, they lend valuable color.

Village Voice B-
(Michael Feingold) Tracey Scott Wilson's The Good Negro (Public Theater) is an impressive, painfully uneven, but infallibly moving attempt to convey, within a limited scope, not only the basic outline of Birmingham's civil rights struggle, but the flaws and contradictions running through the forces that fought it. Herself struggling with these vast historical materials, Wilson manages, though just barely, to keep her work on track. Beating back floods of complex detail, she inevitably stumbles, at times, into inconsistency or overwriting on one side and risky oversimplifications on the other. That she succeeds even to a modest and partial extent is an achievement: Our theater has no working convention for historical drama, and one can't expect to grow Shakespeares overnight.

Hartford Courant C
(Malcolm Johnson) The scenes shift freely under the brisk but sometimes wearying direction of Tommy. Wilson's fictional treatment lacks the immediacy of the era. Curtis McClarin gives a potent, charismatic performance as Lawrence, and LeRoy McClain brims with humor and sophistication as his colleague, Rutherford, who has flown in from Europe. Rounding out the triumvirate is J. Bernard Calloway as the worried Evans... Wilson's play is uneven and seems to meander at first. The first act needs tightening. But there is no denying the force of the second act, when the FBI strives to destroy James, and when those hot lights illuminate just how dangerous Alabama was in the heyday of the movement.

Lighting and Sound America C-
(David Barbour) There's plenty of gripping material here, and, scene by scene, The Good Negro gives you plenty to think about. But Nelson hasn't totally mastered the task of telling her story. She's so conscientious about giving everybody equal time -- allowing them to state and restate their views -- that the action turns sluggish and talky. This is especially a problem in the second act, in which the action turns violently melodramatic, while maintaining the same poky pace. The final scenes are seriously lacking in any kind of dramatic build. The production's design and direction are not always helpful, either. Clint Ramos' set is basically a long, upstage-downstage deck, with a few pieces of furniture. It's a good clean environment for script like this, which breaks down into dozens of short scenes -- and Lap Chi Chu's lighting expertly takes us from one location to the next. But the set's absence of walls leaves us prey to the less-than-ideal acoustics of LuEsther Hall; you have to listen intently to take in all that talk. Also, Liesl Tommy, the director, makes full use of the set, often pushing scenes far upstage when they would be more effective if played closer to the audience... The production has other plus factors as well, including Ramos' spot-on costumes, especially the men's tailoring, and Daniel Beaker's sound effects, including some unsettling riot sequences and the aural collages that open each act.

New York Post C-
(Frank Scheck) Some of the writing is very effective, such as when Lawrence's long-suffering wife (Rachel Nicks) confronts him with the evidence of his infidelity, or when he frankly admits to the self-doubts and fear that haunt him. But despite the generally fine performance and Liesl Tommy's effectively minimalist staging, the impact of the play is undercut by its fictions. History this important is too vital to be cherry-picked.

Theatermania D+ 5
(Dan Bacalzo) Liesl Tommy directs the action fluidly on Clint Ramos' minimalist set, with assistance from lighting designer Lap Chi Chu, who helps to make the transitions to different locales easy to follow. Unfortunately, Tommy has achieved more uneven results with her actors. McClarin lacks the charisma and dynamism that would make it believable that he could inspire so many. On the other hand, Calloway has presence to spare and McClain scores some laughs with a performance that is perhaps a little too mannered but still engaging. Good work is also done by Battiste, Abbott-Pratt, and Nicks who give dimension to their roles. The Caucasian characters portrayed by Jensen, Dunn-Baker, and Wallace register more as flat types, although admittedly the writing is partly to blame for this. Wilson attempts to make her play both epic in its wide view of the larger situation, and intimate in its concentration on the personal lives of some of the main players. Sadly, it succeeds at neither.

The New Yorker D
(Hilton Als) As directed by Liesl Tommy, the play’s various plots and subplots move along with a kind of cinematic ease (though they are sometimes bogged down by Wilson’s dialogue, which is used more often to make a point than to reveal the inner lives of characters)... “The Good Negro” has no protagonists or antagonists, because it’s not about people; it’s about race as an empty trope that uncritical theatergoers can fill with their own pat expectations concerning black and white, men and women, history and the present. A+ 14; Associated Press A 13; That Sounds Cool A 13; Backstage A 13; Talkin' Broadway A 13; Bloomberg News A 13; Theater News Online A- 12; CurtainUp A- 12; The Daily News A- 12; Variety A- 12; New York Times B+ 11; TONY B 10; Village Voice B- 9; Hartford Courant C 6; Lighting and Sound America C- 6; New York Post C- 6; Theatermania D+ 5; The New Yorker D 4; TOTAL: 184/18 = 10.22 (B)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Variety review here: