Richard Wright’s compelling 1939 novel found its way to legitimate theater in three different adaptations: 1941, 2006, and this 2014 version, and three films, in 1951, 1986, and 2019 (from a screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks). The controversial novel was simultaneously celebrated as illuminating this country’s racial divide created by social conditions and as stereotyping the negro for a white audience seen here as oppressors. (The latter opinion was expressed by James Baldwin.)
This first-rate interpretation by Nambi E. Kelley cuts a few extraneous scenes, rewrites its ending in the name of impact (it works) and adds the character Black Rat, a provocative, advising man/shadow “son of a bitch,” who may stand for the hero’s survival instinct and/or the influence of history. The play is taut and unnerving. Most of the audience filed out silently, struck not so much by one character’s life, but, regrettably, ongoing issues.
Twenty year-old Bigger Thomas (Galen Ryan Kane) lives with his beleaguered mother, Hannah (Rosalyn Coleman, in a solid and sympathetic performance), sister, and brother in a condemned tenement on the South Side of Chicago circa 1930s. The young punk is a festering volcano on the verge of eruption. In fact, we see him furiously beat one intrusive rodent to a pulp. He longs for access to a world enjoyed by whites, but sees no way out. “It seems like they own the world.” At his instigation, friends even periodically “play white.”
After as deferential an interview as one might imagine, rich, liberal Mrs. Dalton (convincingly blind Laura Gragtmans) hires Bigger as the family’s chauffeur. A gentle woman with a good heart, she’s following the footsteps of her civil rights activist husband. Daughter Mary Dalton (Rebekah Brockman) is a somewhat naïve communist sympathizer, openly friendly to the black man and accustomed to getting her own way.
One night, she and boyfriend Jan (Anthony Bowden), pile into the front seat, force Bigger to let Jan drive, ply Bigger with liquor, insist on first names (as they’re comrades) and convince him to eat dinner with them in “his” ghetto. They drink too much. Mary gets very, very drunk. After dropping Jan off, Bigger is forced to carry his employer’s daughter to her bedroom. She amorously clutches at him.
Though he pulls away, Bigger might’ve succumbed had Mrs. Dalton not heard them and called out. In a panicked effort to quiet the girl, he puts a pillow over Mary’s head accidentally killing her. Reflexively, he then empties her purse of cash. “Now I’m a murderer, and a black murderer.” The corpse is wrapped in a quilt and folded into the trunk with which Mary was scheduled to travel to Detroit the next day. His plan is to implicate Jan.
Bigger runs to girlfriend Bessie (a pithy Katherine Renee Turner) who’s instinctively suspicious, snatches the money he’s counting, and shortly learns the truth. Her biggest concern is whether Bigger has been with Mary. “You know they gonna call it rape.” He beds her. We hear Bessie cry “Harder!” at the same time Black Rat is commanding the boy to push Mary’s body into the Dalton’s furnace (it’s stuck) – “Harder!” (The chauffeur has returned to work!)
Creative staging often places two events side by side with the hero careening between. In this way, it skillfully accordions, fitting more in while at the same time drawing parallels.
From the get-go, Bigger is shadowed by gravel-voiced Black Rat (the persuasive Jason Bowen), a figure no one else sees or hears. The protagonist never turns to or addresses his alter ego. He knows the man’s in his head. Sometimes they speak simultaneously, at others they argue. Black Rat also acts as a stand-in or watches from the distance. Omnipresence is extremely unsettling, adding a layer, rather than distracting from the chronicle. When both light cigarettes or manifest physical pain, visuals are especially effective.
There’s a private detective (Henry Jenkinson, not making much of the role), a ransom note, confrontation, police, another death, and ultimate flight as powerful as anything you’ll see in Shakespeare. Things happen quickly and overlap. The entire company is facelessly used as witness and wall.
Galen Ryan Kane (Bigger) delivers an authoritative performance offering multiple shades of fury, resentment, desperation, and confusion. Observing more of the latter would lessen archetype, but may not be found in Wright’s novel. The actor is as emotionally muscular as he is palpably physical. A force with whom we contend.
Director Seret Scott’s inspired staging propels a relentless trajectory. The production is never less than riveting. Primary characters are distinct and convincing. Relationships affect every move. Focus pervades. Sexual moments are believable, violence adroitly achieved. Craft is not just excellent, but interesting.
Neil Patel’s minimal set features multiple flights of stairs, fire escape ladders, and balconies. These work splendidly to indicate city environment and potential getaway routes. Continuous flow speaks of M.C. Escher’s infinity approach, here, perhaps, a maze. The only falsity is a puppet cat that looks like a remnant of shag rug.
Sarita Fellows costume’s are exactly right.
Alan C. Edwards uses light like Caravaggio’s paint. Rarely have I seen such subtle, specific and narrative use of the art form.
Original music and sound design (Frederick Kennedy) is evocative and original.
Also featuring Lorenzo Jackson and Keshav Moodliar
Photos by T. Charles Erickson.
Opening: Galen Ryan Kane (Bigger) and Jason Bowen (Black Rat)
The Acting Company presents
Native Son by Nambi E. Kelley
Based on the novel by Richard Wright
Directed by Seret Scott
The Duke on 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street
Through August 24, 2019