'Native Son' a remarkable adaptation of a classic
"Native Son" is as uncompromising onstage as it is on the page.
Nambi E. Kelley gets everything right in her astutely crafted adaptation of Richard Wright's seminal 1940 novel, an unrelenting examination of the frustration, fear, and hatred that racial oppression provokes in the oppressed.
The world premiere -- coproduced by Court Theatre and American Blues Theater (where Kelley is an ensemble member) -- is a compelling, fast-moving theatrical work, a tribute to its source and Kelley's skill.
The playwright found a way to express the rich interior monologue of protagonist Bigger Thomas (a riveting Jerod Haynes), a poor, uneducated 20-year-old black man living with his mother and siblings in a one-room slum on Chicago's South Side during the 1930s. She created Bigger's alter-ego: The Black Rat, played with detached cool and constant menace by Eric Lynch. Named after the rodent Bigger kills at the beginning of the play, the Rat represents every racial slur, insult and stereotype white society has leveled at Bigger.
Next, instead of a traditional narrative, Kelley shifts (seamlessly) between past and present. And while some may find her quicksilver transitions jarring, her nonlinear approach artfully reflects the chaos Bigger's life becomes after a fateful decision sets in motion his downward spiral.
But what makes this adaptation so compelling is how thoroughly Kelley honors Wright's intent, which is to explain how Bigger became the man he is.
Explain. Not excuse.
In the introduction to "Native Son," Wright referenced his 1938 collection of short stories titled "Uncle Tom's Children," describing it as a book "even bankers' daughters could read and weep over and feel good about." Wright swore if he ever wrote another, no one would weep over it.
"It would be so hard and deep that (readers) would have to face it without the consolation of tears," he wrote.
To that end, Wright doesn't sentimentalize Bigger Thomas. He's sullen and angry. He's a bully who belittles his friends and taunts his sister with the carcass of a dead rat. He's a thief who targets black-owned businesses. He's a brute who abuses his girlfriend.
Bigger Thomas is no hero. What he is, suggests Wright, is a victim (of sorts); a victim of institutionalized racism; discriminatory housing practices; bigoted authorities and naive philanthropists. At the mercy of a white majority that defines him as a brute and thug, he becomes the violent killer that society always perceived him to be.
"You start seeing yourself as others see you," he says.
Therein lies the tragedy of "Native Son," which begins with Bigger's murder of Mary Dalton (Nora Fiffer), the callow, privileged only child of a slumlord father (James Leaming) and a blind mother (Carmen Roman). Hours after Mr. Dalton hired Bigger as the family chauffeur, Mary insists he show her and her Communist boyfriend Jan (Jeff Blim) his neighborhood during an alcohol-soaked excursion that stretches into the early morning. Returning to the Dalton home, Bigger attempts to deposit the inebriated girl in her room. The drunken fumblings that follow wake Mary's mother, who enters the room. Panicked, Bigger places a pillow over Mary's mouth to silence her. Realizing he has mistakenly smothered her, he burns her body in the furnace. That buys him some time. But it isn't long before Britten (Joe Dempsey), the profoundly racist private detective hired to find the missing girl, begins to suspect Bigger, whose capture is inevitable.
There is nothing superfluous in director Seret Scott's sure-handed, carefully conceived production which unfolds over a ferocious 85 minutes on Regina Garcia's bare-bones, multilevel set, whose tight playing spaces suggest just how small a world Bigger inhabits.
Scott has cast the production superbly. Fiffer is ideal as the careless socialite who wears social causes like the latest fashion. So is Tracey Bonner, who brings a regretful, resigned authenticity to the role of Bessie, Bigger's sometime girlfriend and second victim.
But the most impressive work comes from Jerod Haynes, whose visceral performance is an unflinching combination of rage and fear. Denied everything he wants, Bigger is a man at war not only with the society that oppresses him, but with himself. That conflict plays out Haynes, in his haunted, hunted expression; fathomless gaze and stiff uncomfortable stance.
Ultimately, "Native Son," is "a book which forces us to experience the truth about what man does to man." John Reilly wrote that in his afterward to Wright's novel.
Here's to Kelley and company, for manifesting that truth in a most remarkable way.
"Native Son"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: A Court Theatre and American Blues Theater co-production at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, (773) 753-4472 or courttheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19
Running time: About 85 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Free in adjacent garage
Tickets: $45 to $65
Rating: For older teens and adults; contains adult subject matter, sexual situations, violence