Theater Review: PlayMakers’ Production of ‘Native Son’ May Be Hard to Watch, but is a Must-See

Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, directed by Colette Robert, is aptly described by PlayMakers Repertory Company as, “When You Look in the Mirror What do you see?”

Based on Wright’s 1940 novel, Bigger Thomas struggles with his family, living conditions, job prospects, friends and mostly the white man. As a black man, the culture expects him to be a criminal and offers no roads to the American dream. So, Bigger becomes what white society expects of him, living every day in fear and violence. Wright prognosticates that Bigger is the “native son” of America’s racist society, a society that portrays blacks as second-class citizens, unworthy of any other status. Based in Southside Chicago in the 1930s, crime is an everyday thing for Bigger and he is destined to live a life of crime.

Kelley’s adaptation is truly an imaginative presentation of this historic literary work and feels almost like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Through lighting, sound and imaginative staging, the audience is thrust into another dimension, watching, witnessing, and hearing Bigger’s inner thoughts as told by him and a character that portrays his inner mind. Throughout the play, you get a sense that Bigger Thomas will never outrun his situation and only is continuously making it worse.

For me, this production will be remembered for its staging, the rising and lowering of the beams, the light cues, and the parting of the backdrop at the very end, which rendered an eerie but phenomenal effect. As expected from a PlayMakers’ production, the characterizations and the acting were superb. Both actors who played Bigger were outstanding, and the supporting actors were also good. Tia James did a wonderful job as the mother, but I would have preferred an older actress for this role to make it more believable.

There were certain things I think that were disjointed, and since the storytelling skipped back and forth, audiences need to either understand the story or read the novel to know what was going on. There were also a few topics that were in the novel that were omitted in this adaptation, including the enormous influence the communist party played in defending blacks during that time in history. Also, the relationship between Bigger and his lawyer, which made him better understand his life and the American culture in which he grew up, was not fully developed.

The talkback that followed this production detailed Richard Wright’s vision in the novel and this adaptation’s creative choices. And although this play is hard to watch, it is a must-see for both white and black audiences.

The PlayMakers’ production of Native Son runs through September 29th at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. For more information visit www.playmakersrep.org.

For a complete performance schedule, visit the RDU on Stage Calendar Page.

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