CHICAGO—American Blues Theater and the Court Theatre have teamed up to suck as much marrow from Richard Wright’s Native Son as is theatrically possible. Starting with Nambi E. Kelley’s brilliant adaption of the classic novel, the world-premiere production gives a penetrating, disturbing, and unremitting look at black life in Chicago’s South Side in the ’30s.
At 20 years old Bigger Thomas (Jerod Haynes) is trapped. We see he is trapped by a past in which he’s brutalized by a policeman (Joe Dempsey), sees his father (Tosin Morohunfola) shot to death, and, along with his family, endures eviction into terrible poverty.
Bigger’s mind is theatrically portrayed by the character The Black Rat (Eric L. Lynch), the reflection Bigger sees when he looks in the mirror. This self-image, formed by how his white oppressors see him, follows Bigger throughout the show, giving counsel and leading him to his doom.
When Bigger takes a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy man (James Leaming), the man’s promiscuous daughter, Mary (Nora Fiffer), puts Bigger in a position where he reacts to save himself. From there on, limited options drive Bigger to savagery and despair, until at last he becomes the desperate cornered rat he batters to death when we first meet him.
The beauty of this stage adaptation is that it captures the complexity and texture of a novel without sacrificing clarity. At some points, overlapping dialogue between simultaneous scenes illuminate Bigger’s racing mind, like memories erupting and then fading.
Seret Scott’s direction nails the piece’s rhythm. From the complex scenes that add texture—the intersecting and overlapping strands of story—to the frantic last scenes of miserable cold, isolation, and fear, we never have a chance to escape Bigger’s situation.
The ensemble cast is up to the task, with Jeff Blim, Tracey N. Bonner, Shanesia Davis, Carmen Roman, and Edgar Miguel Sanchez creating multiple characters.
The sound design (Joshua Horvath) is especially effective; newsreel voice-overs give a feeling of the time and amplification of The Black Rat’s voice, a sense of his consciousness.
With the incidents in Ferguson, Mo., still making the news, it’s hard to see ourselves as very far from the ’40s when Wright’s novel first appeared. We still seem to live by our mind’s constructions of each other, rather than by the person we really see before us.
In only 90 minutes, I felt myself as trapped as Bigger—hungering to escape this world of fruitless choices and relentless pain.
5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago
Tickets: 773-753-4472 or courttheatre.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Closes: Oct. 19