J. Bernard Calloway, Curtis McClarin, and LeRoy McClain
in The Good Negro
(© Joan Marcus)
J. Bernard Calloway, Curtis McClarin, and LeRoy McClain
in The Good Negro
(© Joan Marcus)
Martin Luther King, Jr. was no saint. But that didn't stop him from becoming one of the most influential and beloved leaders of the twentieth century. Tracey Scott Wilson's The Good Negro, now at the Public Theater, looks at a thinly disguised King, exposing some of his flaws and demonstrating the imperfections that afflict even our greatest heroes. But while the subject matter and some of the writing is engaging, the two hour-and-forty-minute work is sometimes maddeningly simplistic even as it tries to unearth the complexities of the volatile situation it depicts.

Set in Birmingham, Alabama, in the early 1960s, the play revolves around African-American Civil Rights leader James Lawrence (Curtis McClarin), whose efforts at launching an effective protest against bigotry and discrimination are assisted by longtime friend Henry Evans (J. Bernard Calloway) and newly arrived -- by way of Geneva -- organizer Bill Rutherford (LeRoy McClain). Their actions are monitored closely by federal agents Paul Moore (Quincy Dunn-Baker) and Steve Lane (Brian Wallace), who also employ a local informant, Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr. (Erik Jensen) to spy on the Ku Klux Klan for them.

When Claudette Sullivan (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) is arrested for letting her daughter use a whites-only bathroom, that situation becomes one James and his associates can use to rally the people around. She is, in their estimation, a "good Negro" -- someone who is attractive and well-spoken and able to function as a symbol of the movement precisely because she appears so innocent and non-threatening. The play doesn't avoid the cynicism involved in the making of such choices, and how there would also logically be "bad" Negroes who are less than ideal -- such as Claudette's husband, Pelzie (Francois Battiste), who speaks with incorrect grammar and whose behavior when drunk could prove problematic.

The play also addresses the infighting -- particularly between Henry and Bill -- that threatens to derail the Civil Rights leaders' plans, as well as James' own recurring vice (historically shared by King), which is infidelity to his wife, Corinne (Rachel Nicks). This becomes particularly troublesome when it looks like James has set his sights on seducing Claudette.

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 bigger picture perspective is sometimes represented by the FBI agents, but Wilson makes clear that even they often don't know what's going on and how they should respond. And while the importance of the work James is doing is driven home at the end of the play, it's done so by a character who has consistently voiced suspicion and even hatred of the Civil Rights leaders -- so much so that it stretches credulity that he'd make the plea, particularly when his own life has been so damaged by the movement.

As for the smaller details, there are moments that are effective, such as Corinne's reaction to her husband's philandering. But too often, the faults of the individual characters seem to be used simply to create dramatic tension rather than revealing insight into their lives and motivations.