Born in Mississippi in 1908, author Richard Wright experienced a harsh childhood defined by his father’s abandonment, his race, and his extreme poverty. Despite these daunting barriers to his dreams, he forged ahead and slowly attained stature as a writer voicing the pain of an entire generation of black Americans. In 1940, he wrote “Native Son,” the story of an African American man named Bigger living in utter poverty in Chicago’s South Side. An immediate sensation, the book sold 250,000 copies within three weeks of its publication. Like many African Americans of his day, Wright eventually settled in Paris after World War II where he continued as a spokesperson for his peers.
A year after the novel was published, author Wright and Paul Green adapted the book to the stage. Directed by Orson Welles in 1941, it caused quite a stir in the artistic community. Almost half a century later, playwright Nambi E. Kelley, an avid admirer of Wright and “Native Son,” adapted Wright’s novel for the stage a second time. First presented in 2014 in the Court Theatre in Chicago, NATIVE SON became the highest grossing straight play in the theater’s history.
The NATIVE SON of the title is Bigger (Jon Chaffin), a man who longs for the opportunity to live a simple and fulfilling life without the onus of race or poverty standing in his way. But inside the dreamer Bigger is “the Black Rat” (Noel Arthur), Bigger’s powerful, amoral, and angry dark side for whom destruction is easier than creation. When Bigger lands a job as a chauffeur for the rich, powerful – and white – Dalton family, he is torn between the possibilities and the realities of his own life. When he accidentally kills Dalton’s daughter, the play spirals out of control. This is a tale of mayhem and murder, the account of a man who will inevitably fail – and also a powerful example of protest fiction.
What is the secret magnetism drawing others to NATIVE SON for over half a century? James Baldwin said of “Native Son” that “no American Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Jones living in his skull.” Perhaps it is the raw reality of the tale which attracts, the controversy which racism and poverty engender, the helpless/hopeless quality of a man with dreams which must inevitably die in the society he calls home. And perhaps it is the hope that drawing attention to racism may, in fact, lead to change.
The Antaeus Company has taken on a highly complex and difficult project with NATIVE SON, and they acquit themselves well. Each of the cast carves out for himself a clear-cut role, with Bigger’s the most ambiguous. So much so, in fact, that his duality is portrayed by two actors. As the play progresses, time and space seem to lose meaning, and the boundaries between reality and imagination blend. This fluidity is at once inherent in Bigger’s character and also sometimes confusing to an attentive audience. Is Bigger a nice guy who does bad things – or a bad guy who can’t control his dark side?
Director Andi Chapman keeps the action moving at a breathless pace with the assistance of a talented cast. Edward E. Haynes, Jr.’s scenic design is foreboding, an excellent depiction of how Bigger perceives his life and times. With the aid of Andrew Schmedake’s lighting, Adam R. Macias’ video design, and Jeff Gardner’s sound, South Chicago becomes a haunted place, a place of rats and blizzards. Wendell C. Carmichael’s costumes add an air of authenticity to the time and place. NATIVE SON is a thought-provoking presentation which suggests that some things may not change. Unlike the usual Antaeus production, NATIVE SON is single cast.
NATIVE SON runs through June 3, 2018, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. The Kiki and David Gindler Performing Arts Center is located at 110 East Broadway, Glendale, CA 91205. Tickets range from $30 to $34. For information and reservations, call 818-506-1983 or go online.