Sunday, January 20, 2013

Civil Rights Era Highlighted In 'The Good Negro'

The civil rights era was a volatile, stressful, dangerous, powerful and important time in American history.  The movement to end segregation was full of threats, violence and uneasiness.  That period in history can also be called heroic and full of revealing and emotional narratives.

One of those stories is told in Tracey Scott Wilson’s drama, The Good Negro, currently playing at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre in Hollywood.   The production, which strategically opened days before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, also commemorates the 50th anniversary of 1963’s civil rights struggle.  

The Good Negro tells the story of one particular community in Birmingham, Ala., circa 1962, struggling to fire up a movement to move the Negro race forward. 


At the helm of this story is Rev. James Lawrence (Phrederic Semaj) a married, charismatic leader ala Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with a very particular character flaw. He loves the ladies about as much as he loves the notion of equality for Negroes.

The Reverend’s right hand man and fellow clergyman Henry Evans (Al Garrett) is a bit high-strung, but has his eyes on the prize.  He doesn’t appreciate when an outsider named Bill Rutherford (Stephen Grove Malloy) who just arrived from Europe, comes to town with some fresh ideas about reenergizing the movement.


The docudrama’s plot thickens when Claudette Sullivan, a doctor (Latarsha Rose) and her four-year-old daughter are arrest for using the wrong restroom.

To bolster their case for equality and to highlight the plight of the Negro and the need for justice, Lawrence, Evans and Rutherford plan to spotlight the well-educated and well-spoken Sullivan as The Good Negro in their strategic public relations campaign.

Sullivan’s husband, Pelzie (Hawthorne James) isn’t too keen on the idea and has grown tired of the movement’s rhetoric. He has no desire to put his family in the eye of the storm.

Watching all of this unfold are two FBI agents who have planted a bigoted snitch within the KKK with a mandate to ward off any violence that could bolster the Negroes’ case and to keep an eye on their community. The FBI tapes the offices of the movement, spreads rumors and even leaks various stories to the press. 
The audience is like the fly on the wall listening in on and becoming privy to the behind closed doors strategies of both the movement and the FBI.

There are some stand-out performances by Hawthorne James, Al Garrett, Phrederic Semaj and Stephen Grove Malloy, who are all effective and emotive as they keep the story moving.  The aforementioned actors display the various layers of their characters. James, who envelops the stage, is brilliant in his interpretation of Pelzie, a no-nonsense, simple man who is skeptical of the civil rights leaders and their intent. 

Yetide Badaki as the tolerant wife of Rev. Lawrence gives a good performance, especially when she and Semaj go toe-to-toe in a scene where she confronts her husband about his infidelity.

There are solid performances from the remaining cast members.

Director Michael Phillip Edwards effectively uses the entire theater. His direction is fluid and crisp. However, the play was a bit disjointed in areas opening night due to several technical miscues.   The staging is a bit awkward, the script a bit long and the lighting doesn’t add any depth, yet abled actors sell Wilson’s The Good Negro as a poignant, powerful story.  

The Good Negro, written by Tracey Scott Wilson, produced by Sam Nickens and directed by Michael Phillip Edwards, has a Red Cast and a Blue Cast.

The Red Cast includes: Hawthorne James, Al Garrett, Stephen Grove Malloy, Yetide Badaki, Kristopher Lencowski, Latarsha Rose, Darius Boorn, Phrederic Semaj and Greg Winter.

The Blue Cast includes: Roger Bridges, O’Neil C. Cespedes, Kevontay Jackson, Hilary Ward, Keiana Richard, Geno Monteiro, Peter Rothbard, Tyson Turrou and Christoff Lombard.

This is a review of the Red Cast’s opening night.

On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable) O (OK) and E (excellent). The Good Negro gets an O (OK).

The Good Negro, The Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, CA; 8 p.m. Thur.-Sat, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 24; $25; or 323 960-7774.

All photos by Ian Foxx.

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