1/13/2010, 6:56 a.m.
Many attribute the accomplishments of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American President, to the efforts of the civil rights movement that rocked the nation in the 1960s.
The connection between the two lies in the sense of hope Obama brings to contemporary American culture and the sense of hope that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought to the Civil Rights Movement. It is that, coupled with MLK’s personal qualities, that come to life through James Lawrence, a charismatic southern preacher played by Jonathan L. Dent in Company One’s upcoming production of Tracey Scott Wilson’s The Good Negro.
In this humanistic approach to the Civil Rights Movement, we witness the inciting incident of the play: a black woman, Claudette Sullivan (played by Marvelyn McFarland), is beaten and arrested after allowing her child to use a “white only” bathroom at a department store in Birmingham, Ala.
The ensuing events catch the interest of Rev. James Lawrence, a leader within the “American Civil Rights Movement,” who questions the opportunity to use Sullivan and her family’s situation to advance the movement’s national goals of social justice and equality for all African Americans. Lawrence must make sure Sullivan and her family are reputable people of good character and can fit the description of “The Good Negro.”
“It’s kind of early King, as he was being established,” explained The Good Negro Director Summer L. Williams. “It explores the relationship that he had with Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and Bayard Rustin...the characters in the script mash up to form the characters at that time, and their thinking is pulled directly from the historical record.”
Connecting with the past is exactly what members of the cast and crew in the New England premiere of The Good Negro at the Boston Center for the Arts were searching for through books, and even Internet sites like YouTube.com.
In effort to capture the essence of Birmingham, Alabama at the time of the script (1962), Williams said that she often found herself referring to Diane McWhorter’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize winning book Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. “That’s the book where I really found the strongest ties to the play,” Williams explained.
According to Williams, the book was used for reference during the writing of the script, and Wilson, the scriptwriter, often talked with McWhorter, a Birmingham native, for support.
“Tracey Scott Wilson definitely captured a lot of King’s characteristics in Rev. James Lawrence,” said Jonathan Dent who plays Lawrence. “He is the alpha male within the movement, and the pillar that everyone [in the play] is looking to for strength and security.”
When it came to references for capturing the style and mannerisms of the charismatic southern preacher, Dent turned to YouTube. “Not being religious myself made it hard to capture a character loosely based off of Martin Luther King,” Dent said. “But the script was so rich and the language was so great that it was hard not to just fall in love with the presence of the character.”