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Birmingham, Alabama, was the city where racial segregation made less sense than anywhere else in the South. Not founded till after the Civil War (1871), it was Reconstruction’s industrial center, built where north-south and east-west rail lines crossed. It grew so fast that by 1900 residents had nicknamed it “The Magic City.” But like most of the South, Birmingham laid that heritage aside when Jim Crow and the Klan came back in style. Segregationist faith entrenched itself so strongly there that the black citizens’ struggle for equal rights, in the early 1960s, became one of the longest and hardest battles of its kind ever fought. The violent response that the largely peaceful protest marches provoked dominated world TV screens for months, making police chief “Bull” Connor a target of international execration and ultimately giving the city a new, bitter nickname: “Bombingham.”
Tracey Scott Wilson’s The Good Negro (Public Theater) is an impressive, painfully uneven, but infallibly moving attempt to convey, within a limited scope, not only the basic outline of Birmingham’s civil rights struggle, but the flaws and contradictions running through the forces that fought it. Herself struggling with these vast historical materials, Wilson manages, though just barely, to keep her work on track. Beating back floods of complex detail, she inevitably stumbles, at times, into inconsistency or overwriting on one side and risky oversimplifications on the other. That she succeeds even to a modest and partial extent is an achievement: Our theater has no working convention for historical drama, and one can’t expect to grow Shakespeares overnight.
Moral doubt and moral fatigue, on every side of the question, are what provoke Wilson’s interest. Focusing on the tribulations of a young, Dr. King–like minister at the center of the struggle, James Lawrence (Curtis McClarin), she arrays around him not only his patient wife (Rachel Nicks) and his often less patient colleagues (J. Bernard Calloway and LeRoy McClain), but the ordinary black couple (Joniece Abbott-Pratt and Francois Battiste) whose daughter’s maltreatment by cops he builds into an integrationist cause célèbre, the two grumbling FBI men (Quincy Dunn-Baker and Brian Wallace) monitoring his activities, and the trouble-making good ol’ boy (Erik Jensen) whom the agents maneuver into the Klan as an informant.
Wilson depicts all of these characters as riven, their internal doubts flaring up into conflicts within their small groups, while history’s larger conflict rolls on willy-nilly; she leaves us to determine to what extent the historic moment is steered by the many minute shifts of those involved. In exhaustion or disgust at the endless strife, she implies, people may become kindlier, or at least more tractable. “Let ’em eat at the goddam lunch counter,” blurts one of the FBI agents, late in the game. “What’s the big fucking deal?” In reply, his partner offers a story, ostensibly defending racism, that demonstrates only its pure irrationality. In Wilson’s most startling dramaturgic gesture, she juxtaposes Reverend Lawrence’s vow of commitment to the struggle with the redneck informant’s oath of allegiance to the KKK: Is this a compare-and-contrast quiz or an invitation to view all pledges of fidelity as suspect?
Historical fact ultimately weakens Wilson’s ironic probings. The violence that always shadows racism inevitably reaches her characters, and Bombingham lives up to its nasty nickname. Under that giant shadow, the conflicts she’s been mapping suddenly look petty, the subtle truths she’s labored so hard to pin down seem secondary. Yes, Martin Luther King committed adultery, and the FBI got it on tape. But who thinks that’s really important, next to the awareness that someone blew up a church with four little girls inside it? To reclaim history, we need the whole truth, but even the truth has priorities within it.
Still, Wilson’s eagerness to paint the complexities in a story that’s usually reduced to simple truisms gives her sometimes uncertain writing reach and power, both effectively caught, for the most part, in Liesl Tommy’s taut, fluid production. Tommy lets her actors shout a little too often, and unwisely lets McClain overplay the outside organizer’s flatfootedness. But the four best performances—Battiste, Dunn-Baker, Nicks, and, most of all, McClarin, sliding from torment to steely calm—show that she can build and shape to the strengths of Wilson’s material. The Good Negro may not fully resolve, but it provokes richly.
Provocation is the goal, too, of Arthur Miller’s 1964 drama, Incident at Vichy, now getting its first New York revival by TACT (Beckett Theatre). In Nazi-occupied France, while a row of Jews—ranging from the helplessly superstitious to ultra-assimilated intellectuals—awaits deportation, an Austrian aristocrat mistakenly caught in the roundup (Todd Gearhart) debates the value of idealism with a wounded Prussian officer (Jack Koenig), stuck with the embittering task of moving the Nazi extermination machine along. Barring a few flat-toned passages, Miller shades the play subtly and touchingly. Reviewers puzzlingly undervalued it in 1964, despite the memorably taut stillness of Harold Clurman’s original production, and it holds up handsomely today, though director Scott Alan Evans gets blurry results, inexplicably rushing his actors through pivotal moments. Still, Koenig makes a forceful impression, as does Christopher Burns, playing assimilation’s intellectual spokesman (a Vienna-trained French shrink).
Like other World War II comedy hits, Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1940), written during the Blitz, fulfilled an unconscious therapeutic function: to domesticate the death and violence going on outside. Coward’s amusing trifle blames it all on women’s inherent deviousness or men’s narcissistic complacency—you choose. Michael Blakemore’s astute, faithful revival (Shubert Theater) gets most mileage from the droll performances of its three leading ladies, Jayne Atkinson, Christine Ebersole, and, especially, Angela Lansbury, whose dotty, Cockneyfied Madame Arcati is a deliciously fresh reading of a part often played over-heavily. What Blakemore’s three divas could use is a show of more spirit from Rupert Everett: Carefully withholding all emotional display, possibly from fear of the competition, he underplays the work’s central role almost to the point of disappearance.