Review of Native Son
By Nambi E. Kelley
Adapted from the novel by Richard Wright
Directed by Seret Scott
For tickets / schedule :
Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley
RUN: January 19 – February 12, 2017
RATING: 5 of 5 stars
(January 20, 2017 – Preview Night)
Trapped by circumstances and fear, a young African American is on the run, drowning in an ever shrinking world of suspicion and paranoia, until he falls shivering onto a snowy rooftop in South Side Chicago. In that moment, memories flit across his consciousness, mingling past and present, reliving the cause of his distress in an overlapping kaleidoscope of time. This electrifying 90-minute play is a window into the mind of Bigger, mingling factual events with feverish imagination in a non-linear narrative. Nambi E. Kelley draws from Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ idea of double consciousness to explain the duality of experience that oppressed minorities feel, pulling between who they are and what society expects them to be; rather than looking directly at oneself, it is always through the lens of outside perception. This can be true of racial differences and economic struggles, and is a concept that desperately needs to be understood as a reality in our current society.
Rather than using plain monologue to reproduce Bigger’s inward conflict, Kelley personifies it in The Black Rat, allowing for dynamic internal dialogue and commentary without interrupting the flow. Seret Scott’s direction keeps the core of the story clear, while deftly moving between locations and chronology through use of Giulio Cesare Perrone’s sparse wood beam set and the lighting design of Marc Stubblefield, who shifts the audience’s attention as needed.
Native Son premiered in Chicago, with Jerod Haynes as Bigger, who is reprising his role for Marin Theatre Company. Haynes’ performance is vulnerable, allowing for an intimate connection with his character, while the physicality of Bigger’s building terror drives him into excruciating violence. William Hartfield’s The Black Rat is an ever present shadow, remarking on situations with acerbic wit and alternatively trying to restrain Bigger and taunt him, as internal voices are wont to do. He is the collected calm to Bigger’s primal emotions. Cautiously optimistic and ready to take on the world is Dane Troy as Buddy, who ambles through memories with his comic book, a timely nod to Marvel’s recent work with African American stories such as the Netflix series Luke Cage and the revised Iron Man, Riri Williams.
Kelly Wright (Hannah) is a powerhouse in this production, transforming a brief role into both touches of comedy and an anguished mother pleading for her son’s life. Adam Magill’s Jan is a starry-eyed dreamer who wants to see the best in people, but has no idea of the true darkness of their situation. Rosie Hallett (Mary) bounces with naïve enthusiasm, weaving between a giggling heiress and haunting reminder of Bigger’s tragedy. Ryan Nicole Austin is the conscience of the story—her characters love Bigger, wanting the best for him, and slowly have that hope stripped away. Her horror and isolation in the freezing snow, watching him slip away from her is grim and terrifying. She is the heart of this adaptation, demonstrating the depth to which Bigger falls when panicking about his future.
Native Son is an exacting confrontation of the harsh circumstances that surround racial minorities and the economically deprived, hemmed in by a world that ignores or despises them, demanding that they act and speak and look a certain way, regardless of internal needs. While Bigger gives in to those expectations, he feebly fights against them, angry at himself and those who forced him to see himself as a monster. This passionate and heart-pounding drama is a unique view into the soul of a man cornered by prejudice and despair.
Due to mature themes and sexual content, I recommend this play for high school age and above.