Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson

Yetide Badaki, Christopher Lombard,  Roger Bridges

By Joe Straw

Growing up in the south, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that because my skin was brown, that I needed to work a little harder to overcome the silent racial hatred of my white counterparts and their parents.  As a family we were excluded from a lot of things simply because of our skin color.   They didn’t come out and say “We hate you.” They just ignored us.  I have a sister and a brother whose skin color is white so while we were together people just stared at us and didn’t say anything. In some people, hate fills the cavernous empty recesses of their souls and to this day I can’t figure out why.  - Narrator.

I love going back to the Hudson Mainstage Theatre.  Except the part when you’re running across Santa Monica Boulevard dodging cars traveling at breakneck speeds. The rushing traffic coming east to west and west to east is always moving at a fast clip and you want to shout in both directions: “I’m walkin’ here!” But they won’t stop, they don’t see you, and they don’t want to see you.

Funny, it’s similar to the way African Americans were treated in the south in the 1960’s; they don’t see you, and they don’t want to see you.

Upward Bound Productions presents The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson directed by Michael Phillip Edwards and produced by Sam Nickens.  The Good Negro is a fantastic play with engaging performances that sets you right in the heart of 1962 Alabama.

There are two casts for this production.  There is the red cast and the blue cast.  I happened to be at the opening night of the blue cast, but there was a problem, one member of the blue cast didn’t show up, or was sick, or had a paying job.  Nevertheless there was a sort of an infiltration, an outsider, stepping in and taking over his duties.  It shouldn’t be too hard, same words, different actor, and same blocking.  Or, does it make a difference?

James Lawrence (Rodger Bridges), a small time minister, currently in Alabama in 1962, is in a predicament.  He is a minister without a cause and frankly his parishioners are getting fed up, with they way they are being treated, and the way they are forced to live their lives.  

“I know there are many of you out there who are tired.  Tired of being called names, tired of being beaten, tired of water hoses and dog, tired of loving in the face of hate.” – James

Suddenly James Thomas Rowe (Tyson Turrou) grabs Claudette Sullivan (Keiana Richard) and her daughter (not seen) for using the white restroom.  A sales lady has taken her daughter away and Rowe, with a fake badge, is making a citizen’s arrest.

Rowe then beats Claudette until the police (Peter Rothbard and Christoff Lombard) arrive.   After a brief harsh questioning of Rowe, the police turn around and question Claudette, beat her, and then take her into custody.

James Lawrence, the minister, now has a cause. But he needs help.  He enlists Bill Rutherford (Stephen Grove Malloy) from Geneva for support. Rutherford is extremely organized, something that his other partner Henry Evans (Geno Monteiro) is not.

Henry Evans is immediately threatened by Rutherford. And he takes issues at Rutherford’s aggressive actions of getting things done starting with the vetting of Claudette Sullivan.  Rutherford lets them in on additional information that the European investors will not invest in the south with all of the turmoil.

“Violence is bad for business. Bad business will end segregation.” - Rutherford

Corinne and James Lawrence invite Bill Rutherford to their home for a piece of cake and Corinne and Bill hit it off just fine. But, there’s a hint of tension between Corinne and James.  James is not coming home at his prescribed times and is not calling. And Corinne has some choice words about his partner, Henry, and his tactics.

Meanwhile, the FBI has been secretly listening in on their conversation.  Steve Lane (Peter Rothbard), and Paul Moore (Christoff Lombard) are collecting information via wiretapping. Moore is a know it all misogynistic agent who doesn’t find it necessary to take notes.  

“In parentheses tell the Old Man she’s hot piece of ass. Not that he’s interested in the female ass.” – Paul

The Old Man they reference is J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI.

Later Claudette speaks with her husband Pelzie (Kevontay Jackson) about needing something more to life.  She wants to speak to the people who posted her bail as a repayment. Pelzie doesn’t like her fooling around with those things, that it will put all of their lives in danger.

Later, FBI agents Steve and Paul confront Rowe.  They tell him it’s against the law to impersonate a police officer. But they have other things on their mind; they want Rowe to infiltrate the Klan and collect information.

Meanwhile Rutherford and Henry meet with Pelzie to get an ideal of what the family is like.  Rutherford is thinking out loud, this is not the case.  These people live in a shack and the press may not buy what they are selling.  Henry disagrees.

“That’s how the Negroes around her live.  It’s a house.” – Henry

“Is that how the paper will see it, Henry?” – Rutherford.

Henry is incensed at the way Rutherford spoke to Pelzie. They tell him that Pelzie is backwoods.  But James is not convinced and wants to know about Pelzie’s finer points.  

“He got all his teeth? Does he eat with his hands?  Drink?  Jail? What?” - James

“No jail.  Never been to jail.  No drink.  And he’s got all his teeth, Jimmy.” – Henry

They tell Rutherford they had a case in Tennessee once, a black woman drinking for a white fountain, but she was a bad Negro.

“She had two kids out of wedlock, cursed like a sailor, daddy was drunk. How could we… build a movement around her?” - James

James and Henry decide this case isn’t about Pelzie, it’s about Claudette and her baby, he feels she been vetted enough and runs to speak with her. But, Pelzie doesn’t like the idea, that it’s too dangerous. Claudette says they will think about it.

Meanwhile we get a sense that “Saint James” (my quotes) is not the saint he appears to be.  Rutherford comes to Corinne’s house looking for James. Corinne is visibly upset thinking James has been killed. But Rutherford, obviously lying, says he left the meeting early and because it was late he figured that James got back home by now.  

“When he gets back from the meeting at your house I’ll tell him you came by.” – Corinne

The interesting idea in Tracey Scott Wilson’s play, The Good Negro, is that all of these characters are searching for that one person that will give them their cause.  But while they are looking, the characters, in the course of the play, lead less than flattering lives themselves. It’s hard to find a good person when, in reality, each character has a devil parked outside on their right shoulder.  James is a womanizer, Henry is mistrustful and an accessory to James indiscretions, Rutherford has visions of grandeur no matter the cost, and Charlotte is complicit in dalliance with James. It all makes for a wonderful play.

Michael Phillip Edward, the director, kept the action moving at a fine pace.  It was opening night this night and things didn’t work out according to plan. I suspect the show is in a finer shape now after a few shows under their belts.

I do have a note.

“NOTE:  The more fluid the action the better.  No blackouts between scenes and there should be few set changes.  Split scenes should be used as often as possible.” – A note in the play – author unknown

Michael Phillip Edwards, the director, ignored the note because there was this lovely stage hand, dressed in black, coming onto the stage, putting down a bench, coming back on and taking the bench off, again and again, interrupting repeatedly, ad infinitum.  For the love of God, leave the bench there for the entire play.  

Okay, that’s off my chest.

To make a note in a more serious vein, the action of character purpose was tepid.  We got slight touches when we should have had a lustful embrace. We got a speech about a child when we should have had rousing coming of the mind. We had a farmer wanting to give a speech when he should have jumped in front of the microphone and gave it.  These are the little things that make great impressions and give theatre life.

Still, there were delightful moments all around with exceptional acting from the blue cast.

L to R Peter Rothbard, Christoff Lombard, Tyson Turrou

Roger Bridges as James Lawrence has a really nice look as does some fine work. On this particular night there were many interruptions.   Bridges may have jumped the gun because the timing was slightly off with a member of the red cast inserted this night. And while Bridges was exceptional as the minister, as the womanizer he was tepid.  Still there were a lot of fine moments during his performance.

Stephen Grove Malloy was exceptional as Bill Rutherford, the minister from Geneva. Malloy was the substitute from the red cast and managed to rise to the occasion on this particular night.  As the character he had evenness about him, a man who could come in and get the job that needed to be done, done. But as a minister, his shortcoming was public speaking, not good for a minister trying to rally the masses. But even though he has control issues, he is able to rise above his faults.  On this particular night he got the audience singing along with him. Wonderful job.

L to R Stephen Grove Malloy, Phredetic Semaj, Al Garrett

Kevontay Jackson as Pelzie Sullivan also has a nice look. As Sullivan he is strictly country in his manner and in the way he speaks.  The other characters don’t know how he got his wife which was what I thought was lacking in his character.  He is to be completely different in character and deed that the others don’t understand why he is with his pretty little wife, and there was little of that.  In his objective he needs to find a way to keep his wife.  He sees his life with her and his child slipping away. And there he is, a working class man, doing what in his mind needs to be done. Nice job that needed a slight adjustment in the extra touches to make his a fully fleshed character.  

Christoff Lombard had duel roles as the Policeman and Paul Moore. His rapid-fire delivery, reminiscent of Dragnet, played to little effect. Moments and dialogue were lost in his approach to the character and his relationship to his partner. And as the character he needs to like his job a heck of a lot more and find a reason for being in the room.

Geno Monteiro as Henry Evans did an exceptional job as the minister and has an exception voice in dialogue and song.  As the character he knows he is doing the right thing for the movement but in order to keep moving in that direction he has to cover for his partner and there seems to be a lot of covering up going on.  But, he is on the verge of losing his job, and he needs to find the ways to keep it, if only to add another dimension to the character.

Keiana Richárd does a nice turn as Claudette Sullivan. It is a very sympathetic character.  But while we feel the hardships that she and her daughter endured we don’t lose sight that there is something else on her mind.  A way of getting out, possibly of this relationship she is now in.  But she doesn’t run too hard from her man and she doesn’t run too fast from the man that is aggressively pursuing her.  It’s difficult to know which way she is leaning one way or the other. An added stronger choice to clear up the relationship would only add to a fine performance.  

Peter Rothbard played the Policeman1 and Steve Lane.  As Steve Lane, the FBI agent who wasn’t as smart as his partner, held his own with more rapid-fire delivery.   I didn’t get a sense of his objective.  He wanted to do a good job and was very diligent doing it, but there needed to be a higher purpose.

Tyson Turrou as Gary Thomas Rowe (Why do the bad guys always have three names?) is an exceptional actor who has an incredible presence on stage. He grabs every single moment of Wilson’s play and plays them to perfection. He is funny, charming, and very sinister with a not so southernly charm about him.  

Hillary Ward as Corinne Lawrence also does a very fine job. While I got a sense of her purpose she could have added a little more to make the role exceptional.  Still she has a very nice look and performed admirably.

Members of the Red Cast I did not see with characters in parenthesis were Phrederic Semaj (James Lawrence), Latarsha Rose (Claudette Sullivan), Darius Boorn (Gary Thomas Rowe), Kristopher Lencowski (Steve Lane), Greg Winter (Paul Moore), Al Garrett (Henry Evans), Yetide Badaki (Corinne Lawrence) and Hawthorne James (Pelzie Sullivan).

Nicely produced by Sam Nickens.

Other members of the crew were:

Stage Manager:  Tiffany Thomas
Assistant Director:  Phrederic Semaj
Assistant Stage Manager:  Arianna Del Rio, Ryan Murphy
Fight Coordinators:  Jan Bryant, Dan Speaker
Lighting Design:  Joe Morrisey
Sound Design:  Joseph Montiero
Costume Design:  TJ Walker
Set Design:  Vali Tirsoaga
Publicist: Phil Sokoloff
Marketing:  Tamika Lamison

Run!  And take a friend who enjoys the Civil Rights and their movement.

RESERVATIONS: (323) 960-7774.




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