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Arts and Entertainment

Civil Rights Epic 'The Good Negro' Brings Powerful Performances to Hudson Theatre

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Tracey Scott Wilson's emotionally charged Civil Rights Movement period drama, The Good Negro, is playing at Hudson Mainstage Theatre. Set in 1962, Wilson's script imagines a socio-political battle between civil rights leaders and the CIA to capture the hearts and minds of Alabama's citizens. Although fictional, the narrative is very realistic in tone and draws obvious parallels to the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Under the direction of Michael Phillip Edwards, The Good Negro features dynamic dialogue, carefully story structure, and lots of seriously powerful performances. The talented ensemble cast of The Good Negro has many standout actors. As central character Reverend James Lawrence, Phrederic Semaj perfectly channels the essence of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s psychological complexity and exceptional dignity through compounded bravado laced with humane fragility. Stephan Grove Malloy delivers one of the best performances of the evening as the meticulously high-brow community organizer Bill Rutherford. Malloy is brimming with harnessed warmth, subtlety, and unwavering empathy.

In the role of Lawrence's right-hand man Henry Evans, Al Garret is both jaunty and engaging. Playing a victim of Jim Crow laws and police brutality, Latarsha Rose beautifully blends airy femininity with grounding strength to ease her character, Claudette Sullivan, into the context of martyr and civil rights messenger. Although in supporting roles, Yetide Badaki and Hawthorne James emerge as clear audience favorites. As Corinne Lawrence, Badaki plods along simply and gracefully, seemingly unnoticed, until she delivers a tearful, utterly passionate, and commanding monologue that literally culls gratified gasps, cheers, and applause from her audience mid-scene. James is a dark, wonderfully unusual, and fascinating force that brings abrupt intrigue to all of his scenes.

While his blocking seemed a bit forced, we love that Edwards clearly directs with his heart and knows how to curate deep intangibles, stark imagery, and excellent performances from his actors. Overall, the set is uninspired with some distracting scene change elements that miss the mark of fluidity and the tech person was seriously and blatantly messing up (at least on opening night), but the performances and dialogue are so good that they well compensate for any minor staging flaws. Wilson's script does not really ask questions or reveal anything new, but it does illustrate that although young, our country does indeed have its own epic, and in the case of the mid-century Civil Rights Movement, one that must be honored with collective pride. The Good Negro's relevancy certainly lies in the undeniable fact that the United Stated still struggles with the attainment of both de jure and de facto equality for all. For those that remember King, this play may feel like a bit of a homecoming. For those too young to remember, the presented socio-political strategizing offers the gift of place, history, and context.

Note: This Upward Bound Productions staging of The Good Negro is double cast with alternating sets of actors, deemed as Red Cast and Blue Cast. Our review pertains only to the Red Cast. Edwards notes that he directed each cast differently such that Red Cast "explores fire and passion," while Blue Cast delves into "deep seeded pain." Blue Cast prominently features Rodger Bridges, Keiana Richard, O'Neil C. Cespides, Gary Monteiro, Hilary Ward, and Kevontay Jackson.

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The Good Negro is playing through February 24 at Hudson Mainstage Theatre. Tickets are $15 to $25, advance tickets are available online or via phone at 323-960-7774.