Art emerges out of our collective psyche to reflect our times, and it’s fascinating to see how L.A. theatre is responding to the current attack on our civil, human and constitutional rights and liberties. Radio talk show host Randi Rhodes calls this “the Summer of Hate.” This month Republican Congressman Mike Rogers publicly condemned “the culture of disclosure,” declaring that Private Bradley Manning should be tried for “treason” for allegedly leaking classified information to WikiLeaks, and if found guilty, Manning should be executed.
Also in August journalist Michael Hastings – whose Rolling Stone article led to the dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as U.S. commander in Afghanistan – was refused permission to embed with American forces in Afghanistan. We’re also witnessing the troubling phenomenon of attempts to roll back hard-won rights, such as: reversals of same sex marriage; repeal of 14th amendment citizenship guarantees (which originally conferred U.S. rights on freed slaves); efforts to deny Muslims First Amendment religious rights to build an Islamic center on private property near Ground Zero; open-ended investigations of scientists and other employees at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena – which the Ninth Circuit court unanimously issued an injunction against in 2008 — goes before the U.S. Supreme Court October 5.
It’s noteworthy that hard on the heels of the August 8 end of the Geffen’s run of Thurgood, starring Laurence Fishburne as the first Black Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, two more L.A. productions opened this August dealing with the Civil Rights movement. The playbill for The Good Negro insightfully asserts: “This show, being produced at this time in history, is particularly apt.” Indeed.
Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson’s drama, which is having its West Coast premiere at Hollywood’s illustrious Stella Adler Theatre, is set in 1962 at Birmingham, Alabama, which the play calls “America’s most segregated city.” Press notes plus the playbill refer to this time as “the early civil rights struggle,” but I’d dispute this – Rosa Parks had triggered a boycott at Montgomery, Alabama, after she defied apartheid mass transit laws in 1955. Emmett Till (subject of another 2010 L.A. play) had been brutally murdered earlier that year, so by 1962, the Civil Rights movement had arguably moved beyond its “early” years (the Dr. Martin Luther King-led march on Washington took place in 1963).
This may seem like a mere quibble, but if a dramatist uses history as his/her raw material, details such as this are important. In The Good Negro, Wilson draws upon and fictionalizes actual events and personages, such as: The vicious murder of the three civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner; the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four little girls; the FBI’s surveillance of and vendetta against Dr. King; King’s alleged philandering; and more. (Certainly a rich, if too rarely visited, treasure trove for drama – and even for comedy, such as Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee’s wonderfully hilarious 1963 civil rights picture Gone Are the Days.)
I won’t spoil The Good Negro’s plot for you, but suffice it to say that after a Black woman named Claudette Sullivan (the captivating, curvaceous Theresa Deveaux) breaks one of the segregated South’s apartheid rules, a mass movement erupts, including protest marches, boycotts, the Ku Klux Klan, etc. The astute – and feminist – reader will note my references to Claudette’s physical characteristics, and there’s a method to this reviewer’s seeming male chauvinism. Set against the backdrop of this societal upheaval, much of the play’s plot revolves around the relationship between Claudette and the civil rights leader Rev. James Lawrence (Phrederic Semaj). Both characters are married, and their alleged infidelity consumes a lot of this play’s oxygen, and its title, The Good Negro, seems to refer, at least in part, to sexual morality.
On the one hand, it could be argued that what public figures do in their private lives is their own business, that a leader’s sex life is nobody else’s business (other than his/her partners’ and family, that is) and besides, it has no bearing on how well he organizes a demonstration, delivers a speech, etc. As long as he/ she is not privately indulging in behavior he/she publicly condemns, and hypocrisy is not at play, what happens at Vegas stays in Vegas (or, in this case, Birmingham).
On the other hand, if a leader’s personal behavior can be perceived in such a way as to cast aspersions on and to discredit his/her cause, then how one acts in the bedroom is indeed a matter for wide concern. This becomes especially complicated and troublesome if one of the hanky-panky participants is a woman or man of the cloth (or, in this case, minus his/her cloth). These concerns are amplified when they play into sexual stereotypes, in this case that Blacks are instinctually unrestrained, promiscuous, given to out-of-wedlock births, etc. (Much of racism centers on the dominant majority culture’s obsessions with and fear of Black sexuality.)
Reverend Lawrence’s long-suffering wife is named Corinne (Numa Perrier) – probably a not so subtle reference to Coretta Scott King who, by some accounts, endured the infidelity of her husband. (By the way, perhaps for this reason, Coretta and Dr. King do not lie next to one another at their final resting place at an Atlanta shrine.)
As long as we are on the subject of sexuality allow me to point out something that happened during the debut performance of The Good Negro at the Stella Adler Theatre, although I assure you, dear reader, I am not trying to be salacious. Claudette appears in a scene with her husband, the uneducated sharecropper Pelzie (Godwin Obeng), and faces the audience, revealing how full figured she is. In the next scene, presumably wearing exactly the same garments and undergarments, she has a sexual encounter with James. Remarkably, during this scene, Claudette’s erect nipples could be clearly seen (unlike in the previous scene). I know this to be true because not only did I see it, but afterwards I asked another theatergoer, an African American woman, about this, and she verified what I had perceived. This made me wonder: How did Deveaux do that? As this transpired in the Stella Adler Theatre, I mused: “Wow, that Stanislavsky Method really does work!”
Be that as it may, I’ll leave it up to the reader/ticket buyer to determine whether Wilson’s emphasis on the sexual angle enhances The Good Negro or distracts audiences with trivial gossipy type stuff from the world historical happenings of the triumph over American apartheid. I, however, suspect that Wilson is a showman who knows that sex sells.
Be that as it may, the biggest problem with this otherwise absorbing, compelling drama, which previously played at New York’s Public Theater (may you rest in peace, Joe Papp!), is the diction and pronunciations of several performers. I realize that Stella Adler’s most famous pupil was nicknamed “Mumbles” Brando. But I had trouble understanding what Rev. Lawrence was saying during those speeches at the pulpit, etc., and I doubt that this is the San Diego-born Semaj’s normal offstage speaking voice. It took time for me to get used to the cadences of his Southern accent and delivery. But Obeng’s depiction of Pelzie and Deveaux’s of Claudette are undone by the thesps’ accents. They are both supposed to be born and raised Southerners, but you can still hear the Ghana in Obeng’s voice and the Bahamas in Deveaux’s dulcet tones, which diminishes the illusion of the characters they are supposed to be playing. I imagine that Stella Adler would insist that actors must be heard, understood and that their personal accents should not clash onstage with what their roles require.
Nevertheless, The Good Negro’s civil rights subject matter makes it more than worth seeing, as does Carry It On! at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum. To be more precise, while Carry It On! does indeed deal with the Civil Rights movement per se, it also depicts the anti-slavery struggle, the abolitionists (but where was Ol’ John Brown?) and Earnestine Phillips gives rousing portrayals of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks. The production also dramatizes the suffragette and feminist movement – Jane Bacon plays Susan B. Anthony, Willow Geer as Lucy Stone, Melora Marshall as Elizabeth Stanton, director/writer Ellen Geer as Bella Abzug; the labor movement – Andrew Ravani plays Samuel Gompers; the Latino rights movement — Daniel Chacon portrays Caesar Chavez; and the peace movement, from Vietnam to Iraq, Cindy Sheehan (the willowy Willow Geer) and Afghanistan.
Artists also appear against this rich panoply of American history, including a wry Mark Twain (Bill Durham), a free spirited Isadora Duncan (Rachel Appelbaum), Robert Frost (Mark Lewis, who doubles as Abe Lincoln), Walt Whitman (William Dennis Hunt) and Lillian Hellman (the righteous Alice Sherman), who delivers her pithy, cutting remarks against the Hollywood Blacklist, which in 1951 led to Will Geer being denied employment in the movie industry, and his subsequent co-creation of the Theatricum Botanicum on the Topanga property the actor owned.
Of course, the cast belts out classic progressive songs, such as Woody Guthrie’s (depicted by Matt Van Winkle) socialistic anthem “This Land is Your Land” and “Union Maid,” with the stirring refrain “Oh, You Can’t Scare Me I’m Sticking With the Union.” The Theatricum’s tour-de-force is a sort of Howard Zinn-like people’s history of the United States as told through movement and protest songs, speeches and dramatic vignettes, such as Mother Jones (Ellen Geer) leading a long march of child laborers to the posh Long Island vacation home of Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, who refuses to meet with the impoverished children misshapen by their hard work.
Selecting which episodes from American history to depict in a two-acter, and compressing centuries into two and a half hours is a daunting task. Ellen Geer, who compiled, edited, directed, acted and tickles the ivories in Carry It On!, is usually spot on in her choices in terms of crafting a people’s musical history in the tradition of “proletarian drama.” (Some of the vignettes reminded me of the Federal Theatre Project’s Living Newspaper.) But some of the choices left me scratching my head. The entire American Revolution – you know, that little kafuffle in 1776 over monarchy – is missing in action, and I have often found the U.S. Left’s neglect of our own revolution to be curious. In addition, the events are not always presented in chronological order and while Carry It On! focuses on the U.S.A., Anne Frank (Mollyann Davis as the doomed diarist) makes an appearance, reminding us that people are basically good.
Nevertheless, Carry It On! is a stellar way to spend an afternoon outdoors at the Geers’ amphitheatre in Topanga Canyon, and an excellent, entertaining way to experience American history from a lefty point of view — especially for the young ‘uns. Last but not least is Gerald C. Rivers, who steals the show with his towering, uncanny performance, if not impersonation, of Dr. Martin Luther King. Just as K.B. Solomon captures Paul Robeson in his one-man show, Rivers movingly distills the essence of Rev. King; the actor’s voice, like the civil rights leader’s, mellifluously flows like honey, reminding us of King’s poetic, moral grandeur. Part of our nation’s soul went when that great apostle of non-violence and human rights was stolen from us, and I feel that America has never recovered from his assassination. Nobody on the national scene today speaks with his moral authority and certitude. Along with millions, I miss him still, very much. (And who, outside of possibly some relatives and FBI goons, really cares if King purportedly strayed from his marital vows?)
As our hard-fought-for rights are assailed, it’s reassuring to know that with The Good Negro and Carry It On! L.A. theatre is fighting back, as is Neshoba – The Price of Freedom, the new documentary about Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.
The Good Negro is being performed Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through Sept. 19 at the Stella Adler Theatre, Gilbert Stage, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., 2nd Floor, Hollywood, California, 90028. For more information call: (323)960-1054; for online tickets, go here.
Carry It On! is being performed in repertory through September 26 at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For more information call: (310)455-3723 or see here.
Bar Mitzvah boy Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based freelance writer and author of Progressive Hollywood.