Dramaturgy: Urban Upheaval

Nambi E. Kelley’s richly resonant adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son is set in Chicago, in “A split second inside Bigger’s mind when he runs from his crime, remembers, imagines, two cold and snowy winter days in December 1939 and beyond.” Time and memory operate in a fragmented, nonlinear way in Kelley’s play, serving as a representation of the fractured consciousness of its protagonist, Bigger Thomas—as well as a reflection of the shattered society in which Bigger’s story unfolds. 

The late 1930s, during which Wright wrote and set his novel, was a time of terrifying global instability. The American narrative of ever-increasing prosperity had been obliterated by the 1929 stock market crash, which destroyed the savings of a generation and left millions jobless and homeless, and recovery was slow. With the country still in the grip of the Great Depression but years away from joining World War II, no new national narrative had yet arisen to rally and guide the efforts of the stunned population. For the average American, the givens of daily life had become unreal almost overnight: entire banks vanished between suppertime and the morning paper; steady jobs worked faithfully for a decade retreated behind locked factory gates; even life itself was snatched away without warning, as suicides, starvation, and violent crime spiraled in urban centers. 

In Chicago, with its history of racial conflict, African-Americans bore the brunt of the economic nightmare. White workingmen could look to labor unions for aid, but most of these organizations resisted admitting African-Americans, splintering the working class—a wound that only deepened as wealthy business owners hired desperate Black workers as temporary strike-breakers. Communist and socialist groups, offering alternatives to this mode of capitalist exploitation, welcomed Black members, but these groups also faced hatred and discrimination, and were demonized as “Reds” in the press. For the urban poor, ongoing privation and fierce competition for scarce resources fermented into fear and anger, fueling a public culture of bigotry and supplying the racism encoded into educational and labor practices, housing regulations, and law enforcement with new energy and justification. During all this, the Great Migration continued, with millions of African-Americans leaving the segregated South for the industrial North; hundreds of thousands headed for the “White City” of Chicago. 

Selected Timeline of Chicago

1837: Chicago is incorporated as a city. 1860: Abraham Lincoln is nominated at Chicago's first national convention. Two years later, he will draft his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which he will issue in 1864. 

1876: John W.E. Thomas is the first African-American elected to the Illinois General Assembly. 

1891: Provident Hospital opens on Chicago’s South Side; it is the first African-American-run hospital in America.  

1893: Chicago hosts the World’s Columbian Exposition. Along with its celebrated neoclassical “White City,” millions will visit its “Midway Plaisance,” a sideshow-type area where actual Africans and other nonwhite peoples are displayed in fake “villages” as anthropological curiosities, described in periodicals as “barbaric” and “degraded.”  

1916: The “Great Migration” begins, as more and more African-Americans leave the South for Northern cities; Chicago’s Black population will swell by 500,000. 1919: The Chicago Race Riots erupt after a group of white youths murder an African-American teenager named Eugene Young for swimming in an unofficial “whites only” section of beach. After police refuse to arrest suspects, even with eyewitness testimony, riots erupt all over the city’s South Side. During the weeklong riot,38 people are killed and more than 500 injured; 1,000 Black families’ homes are torched by rioters. 

1925: Chicago’s “Black Renaissance” begins, with artists and writers of all kinds creating works of astonishing richness; many fuse urban realism with compelling social justice themes. This wave of innovation will flourish until about 1950.  1927: The Chicago Real Estate Board promotes racially restrictive covenants preventing African-Americans from “using, occupying, buying, leasing, or receiving property” in certain areas. These covenants, touted by the Board as the humane, progressive alternative to further violence and riots, cover most of the city within a year. 

1929: On “Black Friday,” the Stock Market crashes, hurtling the U.S. into the Great Depression. 

1933-34: Chicago hosts another world’s fair, this time, with the theme, “Century of Progress.” Morris Topchevsky paints Century of Progress as a comment on this theme and its contradiction in the city's shanty towns and ongoing unemployment.  

1937: After a span of relatively promising recovery, another recession rocks the U.S. 

1938: Playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s father, Carl, brings a lawsuit against the racially restrictive housing covenants in the Washington Park Subdivision; he prevails and they are ruled invalid (Lee v. Hansberry, 1940). This experience will inform her writing of the play, A Raisin in the Sun.   

1940: Wright’s novel, Native Son, is published, and becomes an instant commercial success, making him the wealthiest African-American writer in America and igniting passionate admiration, debate, and controversy that continues today.