Los Angeles Theater Review: THE GOOD NEGRO (Hudson Mainstage)

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by Jesse David Corti on January 24, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

THE SLIPPERY SIGNIFICANCE OF GREAT AND GOOD

A person’s true character is revealed in crisis. The road to triumph is filled with battles lost and sacrifices made, but overall it is worth the pain and perseverance. Tracey Scott Wilson’s The Good Negro follows Reverend James Lawrence, who Jesse David Corti's Stage and Cinema review of THE GOOD NEGRO HudsonMainstage Los Angelesleads the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama circa 1962. Looking for the proper tipping point to give the movement momentum, the reverend and his top advisors believe they have found it in Claudette: A black woman recently beaten and arrested for letting her four-year-old daughter use a whites-only public restroom. However, G-Men assigned to stop the reverend set up surveillance to try and keep one step ahead of the movement and stifle their efforts. The same G-Men also enlist a boozy bigot to get under the white sheet and act as their eyes and ears with the Klu Klux Klan.  After all, the FBI can’t have the KKK thwarting their efforts to thwart the Reverend.

The piece is strongest when it focuses on the behind-the-scenes struggles and plans of the reverend and his passionate, loyal acolytes. However, the scenes with the FBI agents are not as developed or as intelligently written as the aforementioned, blunting the play’s overall effectiveness.

Jesse David Corti's Stage and Cinema review of THE GOOD NEGRO HudsonMainstage Los AngelesRoger Bridges stars as Reverend Lawrence, the outspoken, charismatic preacher fighting to end segregation and calling all to band together, encourage change, and bring justice peacefully. Bridges imbues Reverend Lawrence with a calm deference that makes him likeable on a personal level, but this character needs more than just dignity. Bridges exudes very little of the passion necessary to believe him capable of motivating the movement and persuading others to do his will, right or wrong. Yetide Badaki plays Reverend Lawrence’s wife, Corrine, and demonstrates both southern gentility and a fiery temper to boot. Her intensity and level of commitent make her scenes among the best acted in the play, even as the chemistry between Bridges and Badaki is stilted, in large part due to his lack of charisma.

Jesse David Corti's Stage and Cinema review of THE GOOD NEGRO HudsonMainstage Los AngelesStephen Grove Malloy plays the erudite Geneva-educated lawyer, Bill Rutherford, with resolute, articulate prudence; his is the voice of wisdom praying that everyone can maintain their integrity and hold fast to each particular detail when the boycott and marches are carried out. He commands attention with his striking presence and confident demeanor. Keiana Richárd is simultaneously strong and broken as Claudette Sullivan, the woman wrongfully arrested and beaten; her interpretation is nuanced and effective.

Tyson Turrou turns in a stunning, mutifaceted performance as the ruthless yokel-turned-informant, Gary Thomas Rowe. Playing a bigot requires the skill of a tightrope walker as it can easily slip into caricature, but playing a klansman transforms that tightrope walk into a high wire act.

The men who Rowe works for are FBI agents named Paul Moore and Steve Lane. The actors, Christoff Lombard and Peter Rothbard, are at a disadvantage because their characters are written as less intelligent than the black characters, almost as if to thinly conceal the playwright’s agenda. Their scenes together are tedious because the actors tend to overplay their roles (when Rowe enters, his magnetism makes the proceedings immediately watchable). The scenes involving the FBI agents – protagonists meant to create tension, conflict, and intrigue – fall flat and lower the stakes of the production.

Jesse David Corti's Stage and Cinema review of THE GOOD NEGRO HudsonMainstage Los AngelesPelzie Sullivan, the loving husband of Claudette, is an uneducated but a critical thinker. Kevontay Jackson deftly balances ignorance and intelligence in the role. In a layered and earthy performance, Jackson makes every moment feel immediate and organic, from substantiated rage to non-violent composure. Geno Monteiro plays fellow Reverend Henry Evans, best friend of Reverend Lawrence, loyal to a fault and a bit of a loose cannon. His performance is rightfully passionate and entertaining; one wonders how he is subservient to Reverend Lawrence, given that he carries the fire and charisma that Lawrence lacks.

Jesse David Corti's Stage and Cinema review of THE GOOD NEGRO HudsonMainstage Los AngelesWhen examining Michael Phillip Edwards’ direction and his leadership of the design team, it’s important to note that there are two casts: Red and Blue. I experienced the Blue cast, but Malloy and Badaki stepped in from the Red, which may account for the uneven temperament of the performances. Edwards is clearly given double-duty with his double-casting; some of the performances are indeed tremendous, but he needed to spend more time on his awkward and unfocused staging.

Edwards also has an inconsistent design team. Vali Tirsoaga’s set is clumsily arranged; the meetings between Lawrence, Evans, and Rutherford take place upstage center-left, making these important scenes nearly buried in the background. Joseph Montiel’s solid sound design includes a powerful explosion and the murmurs of a fidgety audience, but Joe Morrisey’s lighting design is either too bright or stale. TJ Walker’s costume design is appropriate to the period, but not necessarily appropriate to the context of the characters’ situation; for example, the shirts and overalls worn by Pelzie Sullivan look brand-new and unaffected by the humidity of Alabama.

This historical fiction works as a docudrama of Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle; the details may diverge from the truth, but the personal issues faced in Negro are certainly based on the true story of the dreamer and his brothers and sisters in nonviolent arms. Upward Bound’s production engages with some savvy writing and a few solid performances, but the splintered storytelling and a director’s questionable staging make this nearly three hour affair (including a fifteen minute intermission) decent instead of great.

Jesse David Corti's Stage and Cinema review of THE GOOD NEGRO HudsonMainstage Los Angeles

photos by Ian Foxx

The Good Negro
Upward Bound Productions at Hudson Mainstage Theatre in Hollywood
scheduled to end February 24, 2013
or tickets, call 323-960-7774 or visit Plays 411

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Brenda January 27, 2013 at 2:33 pm

It was long and intense, but my friends and I thoroughly enjoyed this play.

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