Nambi E. Kelley’s brilliant adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, “Native Son,” recently ended at Washington, D.C.’s Mosaic Theater but left an impression with audiences.
The play emphases on the dangers that arise when a society refuses to see the effects of perpetuating racism will be felt by theatergoers long after. Superbly directed by award-winning director Psalmayene 24, the 90-minute production condensed Wright’s 400-page novel into a stunning look at the inner turmoil that exists in African Americans.
It also lays out how they see themselves through the eyes of a white racist society.
Based on W.E.B. Dubois’ theory of a “double consciousness” ingrained in the minds of black people, Kelley uses this theory to introduce a harrowing character, The Black Rat (Vaughn Midder). The character, not included in Wright’s landmark novel, becomes the alter ego to 20-year-old Bigger Thomas (Clayton Pelham Jr.), the play’s central character, a black man stifled by the entrenched racism of 1930s Chicago.
The play opens with Bigger surrounded by a group of individuals, seemingly representing the racism that thwarts his attempts to free himself from a future where the decks are stacked against him. As the sound of hyperventilating breaths hauntingly fills the theater, the group converges on him, putting him a “choke hold” to cause him to gasp and say “I can’t breathe.”
The scene quickly changes to the one-room tenement where Bigger lives with this mother (Lolita Marie), brother (Tendo Nsubuga) and sister (Renee Elizabeth Wilson). A huge and menacing black rat terrorizes the family, and Bigger’s violent flattening of it with a frying pan shows the pent-up anger that he carries.
Bigger’s father is dead, the result of being killed due to advocating for civil rights. Poor but intelligent, Bigger has dreams of being a pilot but sees no way that he can fulfill his dream. When he is offered a job as a chauffeur for the wealthy family that owns the rat and roach-infested tenement, Bigger is forced by his mother to take the live-in job.
Melissa Flaim plays the wealthy Mrs. Dalton, the blind matriarch who prides herself on supporting Negro causes. This is despite her family’s wealth being based on being the slumlords of Bigger’s family. When she asks Bigger to drive her daughter, Mary (Madeline Joey Rose), to class one evening, things take a tragic turn. Mary has Bigger to pick up Jan (Drew Kopas), her boyfriend, a professed Communist. Supremely liberal, they encourage Bigger to drink with them and to call them by their first names. They even ask to go to the black side of town and eat and drink with him in a black establishment.
Later, when Bigger helps to take Mary, in a drunken stupor, to her bedroom, Mrs. Dalton appears, calling out to her daughter. Terrified that he will be found in the room, Bigger tries to stifle Mary from making a sound and accidentally suffocates her with a pillow.
Throughout these scenes, The Black Rat is wily speaking into Bigger’s ear in a sly and furtive tone, goading him on to behave in monster-like ways. This includes beheading and burning Mary’s body in a furnace and trying to place the blame on Jan. Additionally, when Bigger suspects that his girlfriend, Bessie, will betray him when he confesses to the crime, he bashes her skull with a brick and throws her body down a building shaft.
The play makes it clear that Bigger is not faultless; he is a hugely flawed protagonist doomed to a tragic end. But is he not also the product and victim of an oppressive and racist society where bigotry and injustice prevail?
An example is the racist private investigator, Britten (Stephen F. Schmidt), that Mrs. Dalton hires to investigate Mary’s murder. He reeks of bigotry, clearly showing disdain for blacks and liberals.
The strong acting, choreographed movements and lightning-fast pacing led to a riveting conclusion, notable for its different ending than the novel. In one tense moment, with a reference to police brutality, Bigger, trapped on a rooftop like a menacing black rat, finally flies.
In the production’s program, Ari Roth, founding artistic director for Mosaic, notes that “Native Son, at its purest expression, is about the hazards of rage (and its inevitability) for the black man in America. It chronicles the impact of poverty and racism and challenges us to go out and re-make the world and create the change that Bigger can’t; to work to avoid new tragedies in our future.”
The production is graphic, disturbing and emotionally raw. It was aided by a talented artistic team that included William K. D’Eugenio (lights), Ethan Sinnott (set), Dylan Uremovich (projections), Katie Touart (costumes) and Nick Hernandez (sound).
“Native Son” was presented with a companion piece, “Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son.” The play, written by Psalmayene 24, was inspired by a meeting that author James Baldwin had with Richard Wright in 1963.