The Good Person of Bronzeville: A Liturgical Blues Comedy

Adapted from the play by Bertolt Brecht “The Good Person of Sechzuan”


A defrocked pastor meets God, Jesus Christ and Satan in a Chicago blues bar late one night. The fate of mankind hangs on a bet between God and Satan. God has decided to wipe out mankind and create a new race of humans, this time truly human. If Jesus can find one good person he’ll relent, and mankind will be saved. Jesus and Rev. Phillups seek their good man in the owner of Rodney’s Grocery Store, Rodney Jefferson Jones. Rodney’s business and his family are brought to the brink of destruction by economic circumstances (and the conniving of Cecil Slitherman, aka Sly). To save his business Rodney is forced to transform himself into a tough, mean dude, Rodney Jackson Jones, aka Hotrod. He fights off the threats to the business by a combination of gangster tactics, calculated business pressure, and threatened strike and boycott actions. He makes a huge success; goes public; but it comes at a cost. God retires to peaceful parts of the universe while Jesus takes a job bagging and cleaning up in Rodney’s. God reappears in the final scene to render judgment. 


The Good Person of Bronzeville adapts Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Good Person of Szechuan to the circumstances of black people on the south side of Chicago. I’ve changed the motives and the characters, and produced a play that deals with the social and economic forces that really prey on African-Americans in present day America. In the Brecht play the forces that threatened the small business were the masses of the poor—the owner was too kind (“good”) to resist their needs; and the weakness of the main character, a prostitute who got a cigarette store as a gift from the gods on their visit to the world looking for good people. I wrote this play while I lived in south side Chicago and realized how false it would be to represent the same forces at work in the social situation that Brecht envisioned in his play: the masses of the poor, poverty itself the bad guy? the weakness of the woman (she falls in love, she gets pregnant, she needs a hard-edged man to run the business)? These are nothing like the forces at work in American black communities. Workers and the middle class are threatened by a voracious capitalism which destabilizes poor and middle class alike, exploits the people least able to withstand its predatory tendencies, in short, is a cause of poverty; and finally by a criminal justice system that controls the oppressed.

This play is about African-Americans; that’s its life and energy.  But it gets its resonance because Rodney and family represent what Ralph Ellison calls “the black mask of humanity.” Black embodies a life and a fate much more broadly representative than a single ethnic group.

I have borrowed the two most brilliantly theatrical elements of The Good Person of Szechuan: the visit of the gods and the doubling of the main character.  Otherwise very little of the confusing ethos of Brecht’s play has gotten into this “Good Person” and none of Brecht’s characterizations and dialogue, though I adapt plot elements from other of his plays.

 “Liturgical Blues Comedy” expresses what I hope will be the unique and, I think, original tone and atmosphere of “The Good Person of Bronzeville.”  (I think I can claim that this is the first time in the history of theater, of Judaism and Christianity that God and the devil sing a duet on stage; also, that Jesus is reincarnated as a social activist.) Its cosmic frame is a lot different from Brecht’s light-opera gods. It calls on elements of the Book of Job, Goethe’s Faust and Aeschylus, Oresteia.

Two points on production: it’s big–a big cast, many scenes, and music. But the sets and staging should be simple, abstract, mythical: iconic images projected onto screens, all theater space, not realistic stage sets. The music calls on traditional blues pieces, spirituals, and a hymn (minimal problems getting rights; the lyrics are all my work). One blues piano and the voices of actors and ensemble can carry the music.

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