It has been seventeen years since Chicago’s eta Creative Arts Foundation first produced “Good Black,” featuring Runako Jahi, the artistic director of this year’s production, as the protagonist. “Yeah, I played the young man, so you can imagine how long ago that was,” he jokes. Indeed, the director, Edward Richardson, says this year eta is in its Sankofa season–the Sankofa, a bird in African culture, symbolizes both reflection on the past and forward movement. Since “Good Black” is one of the most popular plays in eta’s history, both Jahi and Richardson are glad to be bringing it back–and audiences will be glad to have it back as well. “People always call us and they say, when are you going to bring back ‘Good Black’?” Jahi says. Now, in the spirit of the Sankofa season, eta is happy to produce “Good Black” once more.
Richardson describes the play itself as “kind of a boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back story” and assures that the play’s outcome is a happy one–“but with a twist.” Set in the early ‘70s (when it was first written by Rob Penny), the play features Rip, whom Richardson describes as “kind of a loner in this world.” Rip has just come back from Vietnam, and “At age 35, he is worried about getting his life together.” Under these circumstances, he ends up falling in love with Dale Jean, an older, single woman with kids, in what is a classic May-December romance.
Nevertheless, the situation is a tumultuous one. Dale Jean is also being pursued by her boss, Jake, a married and prominent man. “Jake is really hung up on Dale Jean; she won’t give him the time of day,” comments Richardson. Unfortunately, “Rip gets the wrong read on it, he thinks that Jake and Dale Jean are having an affair,” leading to a confrontation between Rip and Jake in which Rip, “Instead of listening to his love, listens to his anger.” This fairly straightforward and relatable story has been so popular in the past because it’s a play “about humanity,” and in it, we see “People living out recognizable situations, struggling to get to their better selves,” Jahi says.
Yet in the spirit of the Sankofa Season, the production of this play is not just a reflection on eta’s past, but also of America’s past. Richardson mentions that Rip is a “man of strong family values,” values that he feels have deteriorated today. “The attitude children have with their parents in the 70s was much different too, especially in the black community,” he said. “It was more respectful.” The story of “Good Black” is immersed in this “world without,” an era before the advances of society “made it easier not to pay attention to those things that are necessary.” Indeed, Rip is definitely a character driven by these older sensibilities; his attraction to Dale Jean is in part “because of her strong sense of family.”
However, ultimately the point of the Sankofa season is to look back on the past in preparation of the future. The production of “Good Black” is a pivotal part of this preparation, at once an immensely popular play from eta’s now thirty-seven-year history, and also a play that looks to the future in its commentary on universal themes: the importance of family, the importance of love, the importance of values. A compelling story and a popular production, “Good Black” is in more ways than one a great play for this Sankofa season.