… desegregating Birmingham …

The Good Negro is a fictionalized dramatization of a key moment in the civil rights struggle — Martin Luther King’s campaign to desegregate downtown Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

This play has a very strong aspect, impressive and exciting.  It focuses on the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council struggling to keep their eye on the great ideal of freedom in the face of human failings — rivalries, sexual indiscretions, antagonisms, fear, betrayal — that could have derailed the campaign for a desegregated downtown Birmingham.  How rare for suspense to be not just about who’s going to get killed or who’s going to be found out, although those threats are imminent, but can this group of dedicated freedom fighters overcome human weakness in service of a high ideal?  I can’t think of another play or narrative that has that theme — if you can, please let me know!

And, in transcending the frailties that would divide them, they learn something important.  In order to evade distractions from their main point by the opposition, they’d been looking for “good Negroes” to carry their banners, those who had suffered dramatically from Jim Crow but who were personally beyond criticism.  By the end, these leaders have grown beyond that last acquiescence — the “last temptation.”  People are people;  Jim Crow targets all Negroes.

The play’s weakness is its failure to characterize the movement leaders, particularly Martin Luther King, with a strength to coincide with events.  After seeing The Good Negro, I read King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written while he was jailed during the confrontation the play dramatizes — it was a different voice from anything heard in the play or from his stand-in, Reverend Lawrence.  It wasn’t possible to relate the strength, the clarity, the intelligence, the weighing of factors, the understanding — the sheer monumentality of the portrait of King that emerges from his own words in the “Letter” and elsewhere with the character in the play.

Still and all, The Good Negro brings to vivid life a time when water fountains could be segregated, when the FBI and JFK played equivocal roles and the KKK was unequivocally virulent, and when a defining struggle for freedom was underway.

The Good Negro plays at the Public Theater in NYC’s Greenwich Village through April 19.