Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through Oct. 9
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Actress Nambi E. Kelley’s 90-minute adaptation of “Native Son” takes some striking liberties with Richard Wright’s seminal 1940 novel, but they pay off dramatically in Court Theatre and American Blues Theater’s world premiere, which is kicking off Court’s 60th anniversary season.
This is the third stage adaptation of the book — the first was by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre in 1941, the second by Seattle’s Intiman Theatre in 2006 — and Kelley starts in the middle with “the birth of Bigger Thomas” (Jerod Haynes), the crucial murder that sparks the chain of bad decisions and brutal events that are his undoing. Before learning about the poverty and oppression that have turned him into a petty criminal who hates white people and even his fellow African Americans out of fear, we see that he smothers heiress Mary Dalton (Nora Fiffer) by accident, simply to avoid being discovered in her room by her blind mother (Carmen Roman). This image stays with us throughout the evening.
Then the playwright backtracks to depict what led up to the fateful incident, but again her approach isn’t linear. Instead, like many a movie and television show, she crosscuts encounters from earlier that day, juxtaposing scenes of Bigger with his family in their tenement, at the pool hall with his gang planning a robbery and at the home of the wealthy Mr. Dalton (James Leaming), where he goes to interview for a job as chauffeur.
She also interweaves earlier snippets with his father, an activist who was killed in a riot, and of the family being evicted from their home. And a third thread traces the course of his first evening on the job, as Mary has Bigger drive her to pick up her communist boyfriend, Jan (Jeff Blim), take them to a restaurant where Black people go, then drive them to Washington Park, while they get drunk, try to make friends with him, and make love in the back seat. The technique is a little confusing at times but successfully illuminates connections that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Kelley’s most striking device is to give Bigger an alter ego called The Black Rat (Eric Lynch), echoing the big black rat he kills in this mother’s apartment early on. This character both carries the weight of the narrative and functions as the voice of Bigger’s internal monologue, allowing us to get inside his head in an extraordinary way. The mirror-like relationship of Bigger and the Black Rat, who reflects back the negative views that become ingrained, also highlights central themes, especially the idea Bigger acts the way he does because he sees himself as his white oppressors see him.
The adaptation draws mostly on the first two parts of the novel — “Fear” and “Flight” — and very little on the third, “Fate,” which focuses on Bigger’s trial. The flight portion depicts Bigger’s downward spiral as he attempts to extort a ransom from Mr. Dalton for the “missing” Mary, tries to frame Jan for her disappearance, misguidedly attempts to burn the body in the Dalton’s furnace and most heinously, rapes and murders his own girlfriend, Bessie (Tracey Bonner). When he’s captured and confesses, owning up to his actions, he achieves a sense of freedom, at least from the fears that ruined his life, but it’s a little hard to know exactly what to make of this.
One reason is that Kelley, intentionally or not, downplays the political content (Wright was a communist) — though she certainly doesn’t ignore the racism — in favor of the human story. This is a good decision that I think makes the play more relevant to contemporary audiences, but it creates a certain ambiguity about how to divide the blame between Bigger and his circumstances. To be fair, though, I think the novel sets up a similar dichotomy.
Haynes’ exceptional performance as Bigger anchors the compelling Court and American Blues production expertly directed by Seret Scott. From his first moments trying to get the drunken Mary back to her room, he captures the 20 year old’s discomfort in the white world, yet we soon see his complex combination of frustration, anger, fear and pride when he’s among his own people. I don’t think Wright intended Bigger to be a sympathetic character, but Haynes imbues him with a certain inherent dignity that belies his stupidity (burning the body right in the Dalton home) and perfidy (killing his girlfriend). If he has a fault, it’s that he comes across as too intelligent to get himself into such a mess.
The ever-shifting interaction between Haynes and Lynch’s savvy Black Rat establishes a successful narrative style that’s one of the most difficult aspects of bringing a novel to the stage. The entire cast is first rate, though Fiffer’s shrill, dangerously naïve, seductive Mary and Blim’s Jan are a bit cartoonish in their cluelessness.
The action flows smoothly and swiftly on Regina Garcia’s spare multi-level set, darkly lit by Marc Stubblefield. Melissa Tochia’s period costumes are apropos without drawing too much attention to themselves. Joshua Hovath’s accomplished, sometimes ominous sound design showcases everything from Bigger’s interior monologue to the pre-show early blues recordings.
All in all, “Native Son” sets a very high standard for the rest of Court’s season. Be sure to consult the program or the theater’s website for special programs in conjunction with it.