Dramaturgy: “Native Son’s” Bigger Project

“Any time you bring an audience inside the mind of a
Black man, it is a revolutionary act.”
­ –Nambi E. Kelley

When Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, was published in 1940, it was an unprecedented success. The book moved 215,000 copies in its first three weeks, outselling everything else its stunned publishers had put out in 20 years and rapidly making Wright the first “best-selling” African-American writer in American history. Raves came from African-American luminaries such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison; the latter praised the book’s “artistry, penetration of thought, and sheer emotional power.” The NAACP gave Wright its highest award, the Spingarn Medal; there was Pulitzer buzz. The acclaim took even Wright by surprise; he told a friend that he, a radical Communist protest writer, was “beginning to feel almost respectable!”

As popular as it was, Native Son was also controversial. Some Black intellectuals and artists were alarmed by Wright’s decision to center his great work on an uneducated, violent criminal—the novel’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas. Literary critic Lillian Johnson wrote that she feared that “the book could do a great deal of harm” by reinforcing negative stereotypes of African-Americans to its mostly white readers. Langston Hughes, who in 1940 congratulated Wright on his “tremendous performance,” would write five years later that he yearned for “a good novel about good Negroes who do not come to a bad end.” In 1955, in his famous essay, “Many Thousands Gone,” James Baldwin took Wright to task for feeding “the notorious national taste for the sensational.” Even in 2017, as ongoing political anxiety continues to threaten to turn Americans against each other, we know that it is necessary to engage critically and thoughtfully with works that portray Black life for audiences that are predominantly white. 

Yes, Wright’s Native Son is terrifying. That is exactly what its author intended: to prod the white American public into working harder for social justice by showing that the existing systems of oppression, if left unchanged, could—and likely would—yield violence and horror for white and Black communities alike. 

But Wright’s vision was not limited to the racial struggle in America; in his essay, “How Bigger Was Born,” he describes writing the book as a way to create “with words a scheme of images and symbols whose direction could enlist the sympathies, loyalties, and yearnings of the millions of Bigger Thomases in every land and race.” Wright’s “Bigger” project was nothing less than to galvanize the world to eliminate all forms of oppression and exploitation. 

In adapting this rich source material into the stage version of Native Son you are about to see, Nambi E. Kelley has made Wright’s project her own. By focusing her play on the book’s first two sections (leaving out the third, which is dominated by Bigger’s white lawyer) she has prioritized Bigger’s internal life. By creating the character of The Black Rat, who alternately serves as Bigger’s survival instinct and inner truth, she has dramatized the intense struggle between the man he would like to be and the fearful figure that racial oppression would twist him into. Ultimately, Kelley’s “Bigger” goal is no less radical than Wright’s; as the playwright herself has said, “Any time you bring an audience inside the mind of a Black man, it is a revolutionary act.”