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Arts and Entertainment

The Good Negro Recalls a Not-So-Good Past: Play Provides Intimate Glimpse of Early Civil-Rights Movement

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The Good Negro photo 4[1].jpg
Damon Christopher, Phrederic Semaj, Austen Jaye (l-r) in 'The Good Negro' at the Stella Adler Theatre. | Photo: Ian Foxx

Damon Christopher, Phrederic Semaj, Austen Jaye (l-r) in 'The Good Negro' at the Stella Adler Theatre. | Photo: Ian Foxx

In a bone-chilling portrayal of the early days of the civil-rights movement, Tracey Scott Wilson’sThe Good Negro receives its West Coast premiere at the Stella Adler Theatre through Sept. 19.An intimate look at the early days of the civil rights movement, The Good Negro follows the lives of Rev. James Lawrence (Phrederic Semaj) and his cohorts Bill Rutherford (Austen Jaye) and Henry Evans (Damon Christopher) as they birth a movement in “the most segregated city in America”--Birmingham, Ala.--in the early 60s. The trio must overcome personal shortcomings, violence, fear, and apathy to forge a movement not only in the political arena but also in the court of public opinion. In an attempt to galvanize the people, they have decided to use the recent example of a woman, Claudette Sullivan (Theresa Deveaux), who was separated from her 4-year-old daughter and arrested when she allowed the little girl to use a whites-only restroom in a downtown department store. Meanwhile, the FBI has planted a racist redneck as an informant in the KKK, but seems more eager to obtain information to destroy the civil-rights movement through de-crediting its leaders than trying to minimize Klan violence.

Such a weighty matter could easily dip into the self-righteous, but what makes The Good Negro so compelling is it refrains from being preachy and gives us characters just as flawed as the historical ones from which Ms. Wilson obviously draws her inspiration. Rev. Lawrence, although committed to nonviolence and a noble cause, has a weakness for women. Henry is capable of sacrificing a movement to his pride. And the bad guys show moments of humanity, as well. One of the FBI informants slowly starts to dissociate himself from their work, and even the boastful white racist Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. (Brian E. Smith) appears both squeamish and remorseful with his role in the violence. But it is Semaj who steals the stage with his charismatic portrayal of the reverend, in all of his determination, devotion, humility and pride.

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The play hosts a modest set and unsophisticated production values, but what it lacks there it more than makes up for by virtue of simply telling a good story and giving a glimpse into the psychology behind launching--and opposing--a movement of the people. And in one of the most unheard-of scenarios known to modern-day publicists, somehow the movement manages to survive vicious attacks that are actually true because the people simply don’t believe them.

The Good Negro is a painful--but important--reminder of the wide-scale injustices that were explicitly sanctioned or complicity permitted in the not-too distant past in this country. It is a reminder that popular opinion and justice do not necessarily equate, and that this nation succeeds because some people are determined to make us open our eyes, no matter the personal cost.

The Good Negro is running through Sept. 19. Thursday-Saturday @ 8 pm, Sunday at 3 pm. Stella Adler Theatre, Gilbert Stage, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., 2nd Floor. Tickets are $18-20. 323-960-1054.