CHICAGO — The great achievements of humanity are the work of imperfect souls. Whether it's Beethoven scribbling the sublime Ninth Symphony, Isaac Newton transforming physics or – to take the issue at hand — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. leading his black brethren to freedom, lasting deeds can belie the mortal foibles of their doers.
Tracey Scott Wilson's finely honed play “The Good Negro,” at the Goodman Theatre, peers inside Dr. King's epochal movement to show us how vision clashed with ego, resolve caromed off circumstance and inspired leaders grappled with ordinary things like fear, loneliness and marital faith.
While Wilson gives her characters fictitious names, she has made no secret of “The Good Negro's” real-life references since its premiere in Dallas in 2008. Dr. King and his wife Coretta become James and Corrine Lawrence. Dr. King's close friend, right-hand man and eventual successor, Ralph Abernathy, is re-christened Henry Evans.
As for the Ku Klux Klan and the FBI, forces whose objectives in retrospect tend to blur together during those charged events of the early '60s, they remain quite recognizable in Wilson's volatile Birmingham, Ala., landscape.
But the title of the play perhaps requires some explaining. It doesn't refer to Dr. King. It's a term his circle used. A “good Negro” was any black person who might serve as a rallying point for the freedom movement, someone who, for example, had never been arrested, was well spoken, didn't drink to excess, didn't curse and made a generally pleasing appearance.
And one more thing: Such a poster person also must have suffered specifically and heinously as a direct result of segregation laws.
Which brings us to the core of Wilson's concise and gripping narrative. A black woman and her 4-year-old daughter have been arrested and jailed – both of them, separately – because the mother allowed the girl to use a whites-only restroom in a department store when the colored restroom was occupied. It was that, explains the mother, or have the child do her business out in the alley behind the trash cans, like an animal.
The case of this aggrieved woman comes to the attention of Rev. Lawrence, at the very moment he feels support for his freedom campaign waning. Over objections from the woman's husband, Rev. Lawrence draws her into the cause.
As both the Klan and the FBI watch this development, the pastor appears to grow quite close to his poster subject. Innuendos are spread. The situation explodes, and the movement is rocked by guilt, remorse, bloodshed and death. It looks as if Birmingham, like other freedom fronts before it, will be lost.
With virtuosic skill and a sure feel for her conflicted characters, Wilson weaves the strands of hope, despair, rage and transcending purpose. Director Chuck Smith keeps tension on the line of a philosophical play by seamlessly cross-lacing scene into scene, making efficient use of Riccardo Hernandez's minimalist sets. A judicious sprinkling of video projections lends the events an aura of immediacy as well as historic truth.
The Goodman's superb ensemble cast is led by Billy Eugene Jones' statuesque presence and impassioned delivery as Rev. Lawrence, with Teagle F. Bougere adding an intense, feisty and often very funny portrayal as his lieutenant, Henry Evans. As the pastor's long-suffering wife, Karen Aldridge manages a winning blend of grace, energy and pain.
Nambi E. Kelley offers a sympathetic turn as the outraged mother, and Tory O. Davis is quietly stellar as her stolid husband suddenly swept into the maelstrom of events. As Rev. Lawrence's overly earnest organization man, Demetrios Troy injects deliciously dry humor.
As the watchdog FBI agents, Mick Weber and John Hoogenakker provide a calculating and unnerving foil to their Klan-plant informant. To that low-life version of Everyman, Dan Waller brings a three-dimensional mix of arrogance, fantasy and stupidity.
"The Good Negro" plays at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, through June 6. Tickets from $25. Call (312) 443-3800. www.GoodmanTheatre,org