Kudos to True Colors Theatre artistic director Jamil Jude for having the courage to produce the world premiere of an unfamiliar, untested new show.
The relatively unknown playwright is Rachel Lynett, whose previous credits include projects commissioned by theater companies in Florida and Massachusetts, in addition to several staged readings and workshops of other scripts elsewhere.
But the best of intentions alone aren’t always enough. Lynett’s “Good Bad People,” directed for True Colors by Ibi Owolabi (Synchronicity’s “The Bluest Eye”), purports to deal with the tragedy of an unarmed young Black man senselessly shot and killed by white police officers, this time as a result of mistaken identity, and its impact on his affluent Los Angeles family.
That the play isn’t based on real people or a factual event shouldn’t make it any less gripping as a lamentable commentary on contemporary racial injustice. What does is that the character of the wrongfully slain Amiri Johnson remains such a curiously incidental presence in his own story.
The first indication of dysfunction among the Johnsons emerges from the outset, when the prodigal lesbian daughter, June (Veanna Black), arrives back home after several years away to learn that her father has simply gone to Las Vegas. It seems he “didn’t want to deal with” any potential publicity surrounding Amiri’s death, let alone attend his son’s impending funeral. (Alarmingly, no one in the family bothered to reach out and notify June; she heard about her brother’s death on social media.)
Like their father, June’s younger sister, Audre (Asia Rogers), an environmental lobbyist engaged to a Jewish mayoral candidate, would just as soon downplay the situation, too. Why call attention to it by having the family issue a formal statement or take any kind of legal action, if it could jeopardize her fiancee’s political career, or it would mean sacrificing her own ambitions of someday becoming his First Lady? “It wouldn’t bring Amiri back anyway,” she reckons.
Meanwhile, the bickering siblings periodically hear their mother, Miriam (Terry Henry), wailing uncontrollably from behind the locked door of her upstairs bedroom and wreaking havoc on the contents of the room. Henry plays the role in full grande-dame mode — and she looks absolutely fabulous in costume designer Jarrod Barnes’ flowing finery — but whenever she ventures downstairs, it’s often only long enough to raid the liquor cabinet, and to spite her daughters with lines like, “You bring nothing but trouble with you,” or, “I wish it had been either of you (who were killed) instead of him.”
They argue a lot about sundry skeletons in their familial closet, most of which have little to do with Amiri, specifically, at least until much later in the play, and by then it feels almost like a vague afterthought. Why wasn’t he “welcome at home”? Didn’t any of them care that he was living in a homeless shelter when he was shot and killed?
True to the Johnson form, Miriam eventually acknowledges, “I don’t want to talk about him,” which includes delivering the eulogy at his memorial service.
Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay have designed yet another of their sumptuous sets for the Johnson home. As usual, it’s lovely just to look at; more uncommonly, it’s also increasingly functional — and sturdy — given another family trait the mother and daughters share with regard to being prone to histrionics, and a tendency to repeatedly storm off in a melodramatic huff, forcefully slamming various doors behind them to punctuate their anger. After one of them finally takes a bat to their fully furnished kitchen, it holds up remarkably well to the beating.
But something isn’t right about the play, when it’s primarily left to a newspaper reporter (Kylie Gray Mask), an epitome of liberal white guilt, to “speak up for justice” on Amiri’s behalf, to admit that what happened to him was an “insult to our humanity,” or that “what he did” means less than “what his family says about him.” In the case of the Johnsons, everything’s mostly about them. As June replies to her, “They say tragedy causes people to speak truth about themselves.” Never mind poor Amiri.
Bottom line: Confounding characters thwart a misguided play.
“Good Bad People”
Through March 12. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 11 a.m. Thursday (March 9). $15-$45. Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road SW, Atlanta. 404-532-1901. truecolorstheatre.org.
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