The play, which begins previews on Tuesday at the Public Theater, imagines a troubled moment in the American civil rights movement, when an act of intolerance leads to riots and hate crimes in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. Three black leaders try to rally their community, but their efforts are hampered not only by the K.K.K. and the F.B.I., but also by their own classism, infighting and vice.
By staging laudable characters’ indiscretions, the play confronts what Liesl Tommy, the production’s director, calls “the idea of the good Negro,” which has become especially relevant with Barack Obama’s presidency. “It’s that old standard that in order to be worth something in this country, you can’t be ‘as good.’ You have to be better."
Yet Ms. Wilson’s past and sense of obligation almost kept her from addressing the complexity of civil rights leaders.
“I grew up as a preacher’s kid,” she said, “and King was idolized. Idolized. And I was always told as a child that you don’t air your dirty laundry. It was ‘Don’t throw it out there, because white people already think the worst of us.’”
“We had some people who had been interested in the play say that it wasn’t relevant anymore because Obama was doing well,” Ms. Wilson said.
At that, Ms. Tommy chuckled, threw up her hands and said: “We were like: ‘What? Because Obama’s doing well, there’s no more racism?’ ”
Leaning forward, Ms. Wilson began, “The idea of ‘postracial’ to me is —— ”
“—— a fantasy," Ms. Tommy interjected.
Ms. Wilson added: “An insane fantasy. Like a ‘Star Wars’ fantasy. Racism is not going to end just because we have a black president. Real equality will come when black people can mess up just like white people and still succeed, and when a flaw in a black leader is not looked at as a flaw in the black race."