So, in Native Son, Bigger Thomas (Clayton Pelham, Jr.), a man with no options, lives in a one-room apartment on the South Side of 1940 Chicago with his mother (Lolita Marie) and his brother (Tendo Nsubuga) and his sister (Renee Elizabeth Wilson) and also a black rat the size of an alley cat.
And though Bigger Thomas pounds that rat with an iron skillet until it is flat and soaked in a sea of blood, in Nambi E. Kelley’s retelling of Richard Wright’s seminal story, black rats never die, they just become the alter ego (Vaughn Ryan Midder) of Black men.
Thomas, who dreams of becoming a pilot (fat chance of that, in a White-controlled industry) instead agrees to become a chauffeur to the Daltons, a wealthy White family, because if he does not, Social Services will cut off assistance to his mother and the rest of his family. Once he reports for duty, Mrs. Dalton (Melissa Flaim) announces that he will have a collateral duty: stoking the furnace to make sure the house is warm. And you thought slavery was dead! But don’t worry, the Daltons are liberals. Mr. Dalton contributes to the NAACP, and other “Negro causes.” And Mrs. Dalton has her own claim to sympathy: some bad Prohibition hooch, consumed in her libertine days, has made her blind.
But as woke as Mr. and Mrs. Dalton may believe themselves to be, no one is more woke — or more profoundly asleep — than their daughter Mary (Madeline Joey Rose) and her boyfriend Jan (Drew Kopas). Mary and Jan, professed Communists, rapturously await the Revolution, and to do their own part in it, they sit in the front of the car with their Negro chauffeur, and drink rum with him, and insist that he call them by their first names. And at the end of the day — I mean this literally — Mary, whose idea of African-Americans is distinctly libidinous (she began thinking about them when she peeked in the window of an African-American home and saw the children running around naked) has her arms wrapped around Bigger and her drunken body pressed close to his as he tries to steer her to her room and be shed of her.
And afterward, all is chaos, involving Bigger, his family, his lover Bessie (Wilson), and a fierce bigoted detective (Stephen F. Schmidt). And thus Wright’s story fits squarely into the tradition of socially-conscious novels of the first half of the last century — think An American Tragedy or Of Mice and Men — in which a flawed protagonist finds that his own weaknesses combined with malicious society leads him inexorably to tragedy.
Make no mistake about it: Bigger Thomas is massively flawed. He is almost wholly without imagination, and his default instinct is violence — the number of times he says “I’ll kill you” in response to provocations large and small is impressive. But he is also the victim of pervasive racism, and the dilemma he finds himself in — he cannot resist Mary’s advances without offending a White woman, and he cannot accept them without risking his life — has no good solution. And the reader, who is flawed himself (as we all are) walks away from the novel with a vague feeling that he ought to do something to make the conditions he witnessed in the novel change or go away.
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Wright wrote Native Son in 1940. How does it speak to us now, nearly eighty years later?
Obviously there have been some improvements; African-Americans are no longer exotic to White people, and there are plenty of African-American pilots. But it would be nonsense to claim we are on a level playing field. Could Native Son be reimagined in a way which captures the dilemma of the contemporary African-American?
Perhaps, but, sadly, this isn’t it. Kelley (whose adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz was seen last year at Baltimore Center Stage) has elected to chop Wright’s narrative into bits, and rearrange them in time, thus sucking much of the emotional life out of it. For example: we open not in Bigger’s apartment but at the very crux of the play, where Bigger, with The Black Rat urging him on, is trying to wrestle drunk Mary into her bed as her blind mother comes into the room. Unless we’re familiar with Wright’s work, we do not know the relationship between Bigger and Mary; we do not know who Mrs. Dalton is, or why she can’t see what’s going on, and we do not know who The Black Rat — who appears to be another man — is. We are justified in concluding, say, that Bigger and The Black Rat are two strangers who came upon Mary in her drunken state and have taken it upon themselves to bring her home, and that her mother is not in the same room with them but in the next room, separated by an imaginary wall. Eventually we come to understand what’s happened, but in the meantime we are asking the one narrative question no playwright wants to hear, which is “what’s going on?”
Kelley continues to splice the novel together thematically, rather than chronologically. Thus we see Bigger and his lover, Bessie, on the lam — and, in the next scene, Bigger is in a pool hall with his brother, planning to knock over a store, from a part of the story long prior to Bigger’s fatal encounter with Mary. Toward the end of the play, we see Bigger as a 15-year-old in a confrontation with some particularly vicious policemen. I’m not suggesting that the story needs to be told in a rigidly chronological way –Wright did some time-shifting himself — but Kelley’s narrative risks confusing an audience member not familiar with the story. The problem is enhanced by director Psalmayene 24’s decision to double-cast some actors, particularly Wilson as Bigger’s sister and his lover.
closes April 28, 2019
Details and tickets
Kelley’s other significant innovation is to create The Black Rat as a human character, instead of, as Wright had it, an actual rat. This works better, although not, I think, in the way Kelley intended. In an interview with dramaturges Khalid Y. Long and Isaiah M. Wooden, Kelley says she created The Black Rat as “a manifestation of W.E.B. Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness…” Du Bois, writing in 1897, called this double-consciousness “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
But The Black Rat is not a manifestation of Caucasian contempt, or some savage version of Bigger who would comport with the views that a bigoted White would have of a Black man. He is shrewder than Bigger, and more restrained; but ultimately he urges Bigger on to his disastrous choices. He gives us Bigger’s interior self, but he is not a manifestation of double consciousness, except in the sense that we all have an exterior and interior self.
Mosaic Theater and Psalmayene 24 have put together a slam-bang production, long on dramatic tension, and when Kelley permits the narrative to move forward chronologically — I’m thinking in particular of the scenes in which Bigger and The Black Rat are on a doomed flight from the Chicago police — the play succeeds beautifully. There are some terrific performances — in particular, Pelham and Midder, who while they present wildly different personas weirdly seem to parallel each other, and Flaim, whose Mrs. Dalton seems oblivious to her own toxicity. Schmidt nails the sort of bigoted cop who, sadly, is extant even today. There are some choral parts, which allow us to hear Lolita Marie’s wonderful voice. I did not fully buy Rose as Mary, but in fairness the script does not give her much to work with.
Ethan Sinnott’s set features a huge photo of Bigger broken into about twenty separate shards. It is distorted, but still recognizable. This may have been meant as a metaphor for the effect which White racist society had on Bigger, but it also serves as a capsule description of what Kelley has done to Wright’s story, which is also distorted, though still recognizable. Before seeing this play, you might want to read the novel.
Native Son by Nambi E. Kelley, based on the novel of the same name by Richard Wright. Directed by Psalmayene 24 . Featuring Clayton Pelham, Jr., Vaughn Ryan Midder, Madeline Joey Rosem, Melissa Flaim, Lolita Marie, Renee Elizabeth Wilson, Tendo Nsubuga, Drew Kopas, and Stephen F. Schmidt . Set design: Ethan Sinnott . Lighting design: William K. D’Eugenio . Costume design: Katie Touart . Projections: Dylan Uremovich . Sound design: Nick Hernandez . Properties: Willow Watson . Movement and fight choreographer: Tony Thomas . Intimacy coach: Claudia Rosales Waters . Dramaturges: Isaiah M. Wooden and Khalid Y. Long . Stage manager: Simone Baskerville . Produced by Mosaic Theater Company . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
Note: James Baldwin wrote an explosive response to Richard Wright’s Native Son titled Notes of a Native Son. Psalmeyene 24, who directed this piece, has written a new play, Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son, in which he envisions a meeting between the two writers. It will run in rep with Native Son at Mosaic Theater, starting April 7. Details and tickets.
Tim Treanor says
Yeah, and to update a classic like *Native Son* I think we need to get more specific than that. Bigger Thomas’ dilemma was that if he had accepted drunk Mary’s advances he would have been lynched, and if he had refused them she might have accused him of assault, and he would have been lynched. Those conditions don’t pertain today, but racism persists anyway. A 21st-century *Native Son* could wake us to the ways that 21st-century racism drains the options of a contemporary Bigger Thomas the way that Wright’s novel woke his contemporaries to his protagonist’s dilemma.
Ramona Harper says
Brother, Get Woke! The dilemma of the contemporary African American is the same as it was in 1940– racism.
Ethan Sinnott says
Although I may have executed the set design, what you describe in your final paragraph is actually the combination of the set and projection design effects by Dylan Uremovich.