Collapsing a novel that is often listed in the top 100, most significant novels of the Twentieth Century not only into a play but also into a split-second-long setting within the main character’s racing, panicked mind is no small order and fraught with possible missteps. However, playwright Nambi E. Kelley has handed a tight, tense adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, to Director Seret Scott; and the result for Marin Theatre Company is a sweat-producing, heart-pounding production that starkly reminds us that the harsh, damning truths of 1940’s White America are in many ways not that different than those echoed by Black Lives Matter in 2017.
Ms. Kelley’s script incredibly captures in ninety minutes almost the entirety of the original, gripping novel that laid out in raw terms the racial divide of America that remained seventy-five years after the Civil War. A young African-American man, Bigger, living in rat-infested poverty in Chicago’s West Side of 1939, finds himself as the chauffeur for one of the city’s richest families -- the same Daltons who own the shabby, one-room apartment building where he lives with his mom Hannah, sister Vera, and brother Buddy. A first-night assignment to drive the rich family’s daughter Mary to university is hijacked by the socialite’s other plans to go out with her Commie-leaning, handsome boyfriend, Jan, for a night on the town.
They choose to hit the South Side’s black establishments, dragging uneasy Bigger into their night of boozing and carousing – all the time telling him “We are on your side.” But too much drink eventually leaves Mary both unable to walk and totally amorous toward the beautiful Black man who must now take the half-passed-out beauty back to her room in his arms. When the blind Mrs. Dalton comes in unexpectedly to check on her daughter just as Bigger decides to give in and kiss the pretty redhead, he panics and covers her head with a pillow to suppress any drunken sounds from her.
The rest of the story follows a too-familiar story that still plays out today for young, urban, African-American men. There is little chance for him to do anything but make all the wrong, ever-more-damning choices as the society around him comes to the all, too-quick conclusions based on its long-held, deeply believed stereotypes and prejudice.
The power of this re-telling of Native Son comes to bear in the split-second, fast-paced, tension-filled direction of Seret Scott. Interlocking scenes play out on a sparse, multi-level, wooden-famed labyrinth (designed by Giulio Cesare Perrone) where Bigger often physically moves between time periods of his life with spoken phrases from one incident being either finished or echoed in another scene and time period. Ms. Scott creates through astute, imaginative direction Bigger’s inner-brain, thought patterns that range from nostalgic memory to agitated anger to near-hysterical madness.
The large, figured shadows against black walls; blindly sharp spots at times centered on a lone Bigger; and a mixture of light and darkness playing throughout the maze of the set’s wooden slabs and steps are just some of Marc Stubblefield’s contributions to enhance Ms. Scott’s direction. Background, pinpointed effects of sound designed by Joshua Horvath set the tones needed to round out a picture the Director creates that portrays the contrasts of the slums and alley-crossed streets of the South Side with the homes of the upper crust of the same Chicago – the latter differences further enhanced through the costumes of poor and rich by Melissa Torchia.
The inevitability of doom for this man whom society has branded from the beginning as a loser is underscored by scores of decisions the director makes in taking the suggestions of the playwright’s inspired script and bringing them to life in ways that often appear as if a multi-screened movie is being shown before us. One of the most powerful images of the play and the novel occurs near the beginning when Bigger slaughters a foot-long rat before his first grateful and then horrified family. In Ms. Kelley’s version, the rat is played by a smartly dressed man in three-piece suit and hat, a presence who shadows Bigger throughout his dream/nightmare and who reminds him repeatedly, “When you look in the mirror, you only see that they tell you is a black rat son-of-a-bitch.”
As The Big Rat, William Hartfield exudes the ever-present premonition of the inevitable as he plays Bigger’s inner voice that eggs on, challenges, advises, and even tries to protect Bigger’s too-bound path toward self-destruction molded by the society around him. While he is on one hand through his growly, gravelly voice the personification of The Black Rat in the referred mirror, he is also dressed in business best and carries himself with the tall, proud stature of the Man that Bigger might have been if not pre-ordained otherwise.
As Bigger, Jerod Haynes never is out of our sight and from whom it is difficult to turn our attention even for a few seconds from his achingly powerful performance. While the character remembers in fever-pitched sequences all the event events leading up to his arrest and then projects in his dream the certain conclusion beyond, we see so many aspects of this complex character come to life in Mr. Haynes’ stellar performance. We watch him with amusement “Play White” with his brother where one is JP Morgan and the other is a poor, black worker. Or we watch as he looks to the sky mimicking planes flying high above, hearing his deep disappointment mixed with increasingly hate-filled resentment, “Man, I’d love to fly ... White folks don’t let us do nothin’.”
So tight and taunt Bigger is that, like a stretched rubber band, he often appears about to snap two. The sudden anger that does suddenly erupt -- especially to family members like when he requires his brother to lick a switchblade -- lets us know that here is a man who is gradually losing all control and judgment even as he fights always to look downward, answer ‘yes’m,’ and never contradict whenever the white folks around him. Mr. Haynes’s wide range of emotional constraints and outbursts, his wide-eyed moments of both anger and terror, and his animal-like moves and instincts hell-bent on survival balance against those moments when we see him just trying to be a man like other men, taking a few minutes to play pool, to joke with a pal, to love -- even to dream. Together, Messieurs Hartfield and Haynes portray a Bigger that must be causing Richard Wright to be smiling in awed satisfaction from somewhere in the Great Beyond.
And surrounding the two sides of Bigger in his dreamed sequences is a cast where each person leaves a merited mark on his and our memory. C. Kelly Wright is magnificent as the tortured mother who cannot understand why her son cannot just love Jesus, work hard, and be a good boy. As Hannah, she also rises in indignation when the White Man comes to seek his revenge on her just because he assumes she is guilty and worthless by association with her son.
Dane Troy is the kid brother Buddy, fully convincing in his wanting to be noticed and included by his older brother’s good and bad ideas but also heart-wrenching when he becomes the brunt of Bigger’s tirades. Doubling as Sister Vera and Girlfriend Bessie, Ryan Nicole Austin is appropriately sweet and silly, seductive and sultry.
Courtney Walsh is the blind Mrs. Dalton whose aristocratic dignity and societal status makes room for her somewhat feeble, but seemingly well-meaning attempts to show Bigger that she trusts him, no matter that he “a Negro.” Even more so, her flighty, laughing daughter, Mary -- with red-hair flinging in ways to taunt and tantalize (played by Rosie Hallett) -- and Mary’s left-leaning boyfriend, Jan (Adam Magill), together bend over backwards in almost cartoonish manners to ‘equalize’ Bigger to their white status. But as these mixed-up scenes play out in Bigger’s memory, it is clear that he begins to see the outreaches of Jan s having some deeper, truer sincerity, believably conveyed by Mr. Magill’s portrayal.
Rounding out the cast is Patrick Kelly Jones as the one-person representative of the white police force -- a detective named Britten who comes with all the power clearly on his side to push, provoke, and penalize Bigger and his family in any way he sees fit and just.
For more than three-quarters of a century, Native Son has jarred the thinking and awareness of both black and white America. As the stage adaptation arrives in a must-see production at Marin Theatre Company, the story of Bigger is shockingly still too familiar in a present-day America that has yet to figure out how to call a halt to the seemingly inevitable destruction of too many of her young, African-American men.
Rating: 5 E
— Eddie Reynolds, Theatre Eddy's Read full review