Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.

A Great Good Negro. When Kids’ Plays Aim at Adults.

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Black History Month, aka February, isn’t what it used to be in the theater. Looking at the openings in upcoming weeks at major LA theaters, I can’t find anything that appears to have been purposefully programmed in recognition of Black History Month.

Maybe it’s because too many previous Black History Month offerings were dutifully formulaic and sedately reverent — and the idea of one month (the shortest of the 12!) devoted to black subjects is sometimes interpreted as a token effort that might artificially restrict African American themes from being examined in the other 11 months.

Then again, who needs a formal Black History Month in LA theater when Tracey Scott Wilson’s The Good Negro is already up and running at the Hudson Theatre Mainstage?

Yetide Badaki, Christoff Lombard and Roger Bridges in “The Good Negro” at Hudson Mainstage. Photo by Ian Foxx

Although it will run throughout most of February, Wilson’s superb historical drama opened on Jan. 15 and 16 (it has alternating casts, so two openings were required) in commemoration of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., not because of Black History Month. There’s a good reason for that — the fictional story Wilson tells, which is set in Alabama in 1962, evokes the true story of King’s struggles in Alabama a year later.

Yet by creating characters with fictitious names and incidents that are similar but not identical to the facts of history, and by setting the story a year earlier than the real events, Wilson freed herself from the inevitable concerns raised when the writers of historical dramas don’t change such details. For examples, look at the some of the articles comparing fact and fiction in this year’s leading Oscar contenders Argo and Zero Dark Thirty (Lincoln, by contrast, does not seem to have raised as many of these concerns about fidelity).

Wilson created two Alabama-based ministers who are organizers in the civil rights movement. James Lawrence (Phrederic Semaj in the cast I saw) is clearly the leader, but Henry Evans (Al Barrett) is a fiery second-in-command — until Lawrence hires the smoother professional organizer Bill Rutherford (Stephen Grove Malloy) straight from a ritzy job in Geneva. Tensions soon arise between Evans and Rutherford.

The team decides to focus its immediate efforts on the cause of a young African American mother, Claudette Sullivan (Latarsha Rose). She dared to use a whites-only restroom when her young daughter needed it, despite the apartheid-like rules governing these matters. Surely such an brouhaha should arouse a lot of sympathy on behalf of this particular “good Negro,” but Claudette’s older husband Pelzie (Hawthorne James) is wary of getting involved.

The story expands. We follow two white FBI agents (Christopher Lencowski and Greg Winter) who are simultaneously spying electronically on the civil rights leaders and also recruiting a white informer (Darius Boorn) to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan. The electronic spying eventually yields evidence that Rev. Lawrence is engaged in extra-marital romances. Might his affairs even extend to his vulnerable Exhibit A — Claudette Sullivan herself? Perhaps Lawrence’s loyal wife Corinne (not to be confused with anyone named Coretta) would be interested.

Wilson’s play opened in 2008 in Dallas and 2009 in New York — just at the historical moment when the most powerful exemplar yet of “the good Negro,” Barack Obama, began to dominate the national conversation. Yet Wilson was not afraid to examine the warts-and-all humanity of the people who might have been considered “good Negroes” nearly five decades earlier.

Stephen Grove Malloy, Phrederic Semaj and Al Garrett in “The Good Negro.” Photo by Ian Foxx

Using both striking juxtapositions of disparate characters and many smaller strokes, she created complex characters who aren’t all-good or all-bad. Although they’re both black, the sophisticated organizer Rutherford and the backwoodsy Pelzie are worlds apart in education and perspective. Even the FBI agents, although perhaps not so much their informer, are given moments in which they behave as people, not simply as narrative agents.

Michael Phillip Edwards staged The Good Negro for Sam Nickens’ Upward Bound Productions. Opening two casts simultaneously must have been a challenge, and some reviewers of the opening nights cited technical miscues. I didn’t see anything like that while watching the Red cast last night, but I did witness an array of remarkable performances. The design elements appear to have been limited by budgetary concerns, but the complicated narrative never became muddied. The emphasis in Wilson’s script is on what happens behind the scenes, not in front of the TV cameras, and the production honors that priority.

Although the performances are nearly three hours long (including intermission), I’d like to be able to find time to see the Blue cast as well as the Red cast. Unlike many directors of double cast productions, Edwards has articulated — in a program note — how he hopes the two casts differ. In the program, he wrote “With Red I explore fire and passion. With Blue I explore deep seeded pain.”

As good as The Good Negro is at the Hudson, I’m at a loss as to why the play wasn’t snapped up by a larger LA company with a larger budget for marketing as well as for design, which might have given many more people the opportunity to find out about it and to see it. The tiny Hudson wasn’t even half full last night. The play deserves much larger crowds.

Last year this same Hudson stage was also the rented home of Sarah’s War, a richly dimensional play about the Israeli-Palestinian-American nexus. It’s another play that should have reached a larger audience, but at least with that one I could understand that some larger institutions might be unwilling to depict that conflict, because its very currency might have made it seem potentially controversial. But there is no excuse for thinking that The Good Negro, depicting history from five decades ago within a fictional framework, would be such a lightning rod. The problem with reaching certain audiences for The Good Negro is that they might be too young to understand the significance of what they’re watching.

The Good Negro, Hudson Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Red cast: Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Blue cast: Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Feb 24.

When my daughter was a child, I went to more children-oriented theatrical productions than I do now. I’m sure that pattern is not unusual. But lately I’ve noticed that theater companies that focus on audience members who are younger than, say, 15, appear to be marketing their creations as shows that the adults will enjoy, too — perhaps even in the absence of kids or grandkids.

Paige Lindsey White and Mark Bramhall in “Walking the Tightrope” at 24th Street Theatre. Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins

24th Street Theatre is fairly obvious about this mission, in interviews and in the program note for its latest production, the West Coast premiere of Mike Kenny’s Walking on a Tightrope. The company’s executive director Jay McAdams wrote that his theater’s fare is “adult theatre for kids. Or is it kids’ theatre for adults? We think of it as no-nonsense timeless theatre that pushes the envelope and dares to provoke its audience no matter how old they are.”

As he introduced the performance of Walking on a Tightrope on Saturday evening, McAdams threw out the phrase “REDCAT Jr.” as a possible nickname for 24th Street. That strikes me as a misnomer. REDCAT offers very adventurous fare, of course, but its runs are usually quite short — without much pressure to sustain the turnout of very adventurous theatergoers over a period of weeks.  At 24th Street, Walking the Tightrope is planning to run two more months, through the end of March. Of course 24th Street is considerably smaller than REDCAT, so it doesn’t need to fill as many seats per show, but still, could it possibly attract a REDCAT-favoring crowd for two months?

Never fear. Walking the Tightrope isn’t really for the REDCAT crowd. As directed by Debbie Devine, it’s a lyrical charmer, but it’s not an envelope-pusher. It’s about a girl, Esme (Paige Lindsey White), who goes to the English seaside to spend her usual summer holiday with her grandparents, only to discover that only Granddad (Mark Bramhall) is there. He initially explains the absence of the girl’s Nanna by claiming that his wife has joined the circus. Eventually he finds himself saying that she’s a tightrope walker. But before the end of the play, the truth will out — Nanna has died.

Even that supposedly solid truth, however, is accompanied by a sugary coat for the audience. Nanna’s spirit is embodied throughout the production by the silent presence of Tony Duran as a gentle, red-nosed clown who’s carefully observing the comings and goings of her surviving husband and granddaughter. Walking the Tightrope wants no part of the cynicism of that cranky malcontent Thornton Wilder, who in Our Town makes it clear that those in the afterlife gradually lose interest in their survivors on earth. No, this envelope won’t be pushed that far.

I’m not complaining. Devine’s staging is quite entrancing, and White even overcomes the perils of being a grown woman cast as a young girl. Besides, children of a certain age (which could vary, depending on the child) probably shouldn’t be subjected to certain unvarnished points of view until they’re older.

It isn’t the production that I’m questioning; it’s the notion that walking this particular Tightrope is somehow more daring and riskier than many other examples of children-oriented theater that I’ve seen over the years. After all, as Bruno Bettelheim would have told you, classic fairy tales are frequently full of horrors much more shocking than what’s on display in Walking the Tightrope. That gentle, silent clown isn’t about to start shouting “Off with their heads!”

Similarly, one of the reasons I made the trek to Rancho Cucamonga’s Lewis Family Playhouse to see MainStreet Theatre Company’s West Coast premiere of Janet Stanford’s Aladdin’s Luck — which also opened on Saturday — was because I was intrigued by the idea that Aladdin’s home town in this version of the story is specifically identified as Baghdad. Might this offer a special layer of meaning that only the adults in the audience would appreciate?

Michael Stone Forrest, Amielynn Abellera and Wyatt Fenner in MainStreet Theatre Company’s “Aladdin’s Luck” at Lewis Family Playhouse. Photo by Ed Krieger

Director Robert Castro’s program note further encouraged me to think that the show might offer some allusions to America’s own recent war in Iraq — for example, the first line of the program note is “Baghdad — a city of fable, bazaars and magicians, but also a modern city wrecked by shock and awe.” Later, Castro writes, “in a post-9/11 world, we’ve discovered it is the precondition of war that we view other people as fundamentally different from ourselves. It is the precondition of art (specifically theatre!) that we view other people as fundamentally the same as ourselves.”

It’s a point well taken, but it isn’t really taken into the production itself. There is no war going on in the story. Instead, the show tends to emphasize the importance of taking responsibility for oneself without relying on magic. It’s a nice message, but it doesn’t strike me as an unusual message for a children’s theater production to convey.

I had other reasons for making my first visit to MainStreet. It’s a fully professional company that uses Equity contracts in its beautiful 560-seat venue, and I had never been to it. The performances were high-caliber, with Wyatt Fenner in the title role and with versatile Michael Stone Forrest and with Amielynn Abellera switching genders frequently — and convincingly — in all the other roles.

The fourth wall broke repeatedly, bringing the action closer to the audience with video imagery of all that interaction on screens. The visual design was lavish but uncluttered, and the sound — well, need I say more than the fact that the sound design and original music were by the ubiquitous John Zalewski, who also performed the same tasks on Walking the Tightrope?

Walking the Tightrope, 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th Street, LA. Sat 2 pm and 7:30 pm. Closes March 30. 213-745-6516.

Aladdin’s Luck, Lewis Family Playhouse, 12505 Cultural Center Drive, Rancho Cucamonga. Sat 1 and 4 pm, Sun 1 pm. Closes Feb 10. 909-477-2752.