It’s a sad commentary that some of the same basic societal ills depicted in this 1941 stage adaptation of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” are as relevant today as they were then, which makes this eagerly awaited production more important than ever. Mired in so much controversy over the years that companies wouldn’t touch it, the play’s initial and most significant mounting was via Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater (no stranger to mire or controversy.) That the producers at American Century Theater has taken this on is a testament to their unflinching ability to breathe life into discarded and disregarded relics, and American theater is better for it.
The novel has been taught at all grade levels, has launched hundreds of dissertations and the plot line is pretty well known. Still, the depiction as a produced play is much rarer and is as disturbing as ever, which adds to its must-see appeal.
In quick, staccato “torn from the headlines” scenes, the main character Bigger Thomas comes to life as a big, lumbering, rather misguided young man hell-bent on slovenly behavior and self-destruction. How he got that way is the premise — that he’s the direct result of society’s slovenly neglect for his environment and well-being.
The decrepit conditions of the slums and tenements are seen close and personal from the onset of the play as does the main character’s tendency to deflect blame and personal responsibility. Bigger’s household is lovingly depicted with God-fearing younger brother and sister who, unlike Bigger, work hard, obey the rules and adoringly respect their long suffering gospel humming mother. Still, Bigger wouldn’t pull himself up by a bootstrap even if he had one. Instead, he sees white authority as the unfair arbiter of ugliness, degradation and hardship. The fact is, he’s the head of the household because the family fled Mississippi after the father was lynched, so the issues of social aftermath from racial brutality must be taken to account. Like the novel, the play points an accusing finger at the inhuman conditions that helped create a monster of a man, and its up to the production to see how far to push that premise until it butts against concepts of free will and personal choice. It’s a fascinating social dilemma, one that continues to spark debates and controversy.
Whether killing one of the many huge rats that terrorizes the family, swinging it triumphantly in a social worker’s face, or hanging out with similar ne’er-do-wells, or throwing away his mother’s hard-earned money, Bigger Thomas makes it clear that he answers to no one but himself. He bullies everyone in his household, but his status and reactions with his fellow truants is most telling and sets the through line for the entire piece. What motivates Bigger Thomas? Why does he make the decisions that he does? A pervading sense of fear permeates the piece. His companions call him out on it, and the meticulous stage directions imply that fear underlies his bravado and errant behavior at every step.
This certainly is not a dream deferred but is instead an intimate view of a social misfit in the making. How much can society set up the conditions for reckless behavior then turn a blind eye or point accusingly when it happens? That’s a key message in the novel and the play, and in director Bob Bartlett’s hands, all of the social elements that set up this accident waiting to happen are clear and poised to strike.
The next important ensemble in Bigger’s life is his gang of buddies which provides the clearest perspective into the mind of Bigger Thomas, and it’s here where Bartlett shines. The guys are rowdy and raucous with typical young men bravado, but Bartlett does special staging to highlight their playfulness and youth rather than focus on their wrongdoing tendencies. Stuck in menial mentalities, the guys couldn’t begin to fathom the likes of current high ranking black generals such as Colin Powell, or our current ultimate commander-in-chief as they act out fantasies of being World War bombers. Bartlett arranges them in a tableau actually shaped like an airplane which is strikingly effective in providing a visual image that these young men are fighting for their lives, whether they realize it or not.
Bigger Thomas’s fate erodes with each subsequent scene, even while he obtains the thing that his family wants most – a steady income. The job becomes his undoing because of his unresolved fears and the harder he falls, the more he digs himself into a ditch of no return. The play wrestles with the impact of kind-hearted, socially conscious whites and dissects their motivation revealing that pompous arrogance can easily be projected as caring goodwill.
This is an important story, and American Century Theater pulls out all stops to assure a rock solid production. The rather large ensemble includes notables like Bruce Alan Rausche as the white family’s detective who is relentless in his search for the truth. Julie Roundtree does a fine turn as the spoiled little rich girl, Mary Dalton and Bud Stringer trail blazes the role of Edward Max, the defending attorney. The large and able cast working with such timely and timeless material more than balances the weak patches that come from the depictions of the main character by the long awaited newcomer, JaBen A. Early who still needs some coaching to tackle such a challenging role. Bigger has to be, well, bigger than life, not in size, but in presence of mind, his very being must exude the contradictions of the play, and bear the burdens of neglect while commanding centerstage attention. It’s an incredibly difficult role, and while Early has the hulking and seething down pat, there’s just more to the character that demands and commands attention throughout. Still, he comes closest to depicting Bigger’s heart of darkness in the scene with Mary Dalton. His fearful trembling and yearning to escape are piercingly honest and gut-wrenching. “I’m not supposed to be here,” he moans plaintively, knowing full well the implications of his being in a white woman’s bedroom, no matter that he was tricked and bamboozled by her silly shenanigans. He’s a dead man, and he knows it. It’s only a matter of how and when.
Native Son is not an easy ride. The artistic director recognizes that the play is relentlessly hard-edged, and the director notes that it “haunts America’s struggle to make sense of its racist history.” But in the hands of producers with such commitment to the issues that a talk-back is arranged after each show, the issues in the play can be digested and the meanings questioned in valuable give and take interchanges. The theater has even organized a distinguished panel of scholars who addressed the issues, which is available on their website.
The valiant effort of the American Century Theater to mount this production and facilitate much needed dialog on race and society reflects foresight, vision and grit. That they have the muscle to do it right is downright awesome.
By Paul Green and Richard Wright, based on the novel by Richard Wright
Directed by Bob Bartlett
Produced by American Century Theater
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
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