Review: 'Native Son' at the Yale Repertory Theatre

Tara Kennedy

  • OnStage Chief Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle

“Violence is a personal necessity for the oppressed...It is not a strategy consciously devised. It is the deep, instinctive expression of a human being denied individuality.” -Richard Wright, Native Son

Playwright Nambi E. Kelley brings novelist Richard Wright’s powerful text, Native Son, to incredible, fiery life in her ninety-minute play of the same name. If you’ve never read Wright’s novel, this play is an opportunity to take a hard look at the social implications imposed on African-Americans by the dominant white society. What makes it interesting is that we are hearing part of the story from the perspective of its lead character. It’s essentially told part in memory, part in imagination, and entirely from the mindset of someone who has repeatedly been beat down. Fair warning: These ninety minutes will knock the wind out of you unless you don’t have an empathic bone in your body.

Native Son is the journey of a 20-year-old black man, Bigger Thomas (Jerod Haynes), living in 1930s South Side of Chicago with his mother, Hannah (Rosalyn Coleman), and his two siblings, Buddy (Jasai Chase-Owens) and Vera (Jessica Frances Dukes). Bigger takes a job with a wealthy, white family, whose household is run by the lady of the house, Mrs. Dalton (Carmen Roman), who was blinded in her younger days from drinking wood alcohol (ah, prohibition!). The Daltons have a daughter, Mary (Louisa Jacobson), whose leftist politics and taste for liquor means she would rather spend time with her boyfriend, Jan (Joby Earle) than go to the University. When Mary goes missing, a private investigator, Britten, is hired (Michael Pemberton) to investigate her disappearance. All fingers point to Bigger, and he goes into hiding, with the help of his girlfriend, Bessie (also played by Jessica Frances Dukes, who played both roles so seamlessly I didn’t realize that they were played by the same actor). Bigger is finally caught by the police, and will be at the mercy of the Chicago justice system. Spoiler alert: Bigger in fact did kill Mary, but by accident, and his second murder (I won’t give that one away) is depicted as a necessity.

These nine actors give tremendous performances, bringing Bigger’s memory to disconcerting life. The telling of this tale utilizes a dramatic device of personifying a rat as Bigger’s inner self; for lack of a better analogy, think of him as the Jiminy Cricket to Bigger’s Pinocchio, but without Disney’s saccharine morality lessons. The Black Rat is sleekly played by Jason Bowen, who must synchronize his words and actions with Mr. Haynes (and vice versa), and it is this ability for the two actors to attune to one another that makes this play so riveting. It creates additional tension and urgency, adding to the overall ambiance of the play.

Ryan Emens’ scenic design perfectly creates the tangled, stark consciousness of Bigger; a rising urban jungle of fire escapes, with dark shadows and strident lighting (design provided by Stephen Strawbridge), building the perfect atmosphere for this work. The minimalist set pieces are enhanced by sounds to make ordinary objects come to life with excellent sound design by Frederick Kennedy. Kennedy’s original music continues to enhance the environment of 1930s Chicago with sleek and despondent melodies. Katie Touart’s costume design provides symbolic contrast between the whites and blacks: tattered versus sumptuous, muted versus brilliant.

While some of the characters may be stereotypes (especially the Caucasian ones), I believe that is the point. The audience cringes and gasps at the utterances from the white characters (myself included), and it is expected that we feel uncomfortable. Because how many stories have been told where the people of color are mere conventions of what whites think they are, especially African-Americans? By turning the tables, we see what Bigger sees: white people engaging with him as if he were a lesser being, or in need of some sort of guiding hand. Bigger sees that it is the white preeminence of social and economic society that is the trap that he (and others) cannot escape from (“We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain't. They do things and we can't. It's just like livin' in jail.”), and he manifests this in suppressed (and eventually expressed) anger.

If you’re looking for challenging theatre, Yale Rep doesn’t disappoint.  Conventional wisdom is turned on its ear whereby we sympathize with the “bad guy” rather than the “good guys” trying to bring him to justice.  Native Son is a wonderful yet difficult piece of theatre because it exposes a sordid part of our history (that is not nearly as far removed as we might believe) from the perspective of those who are the victims of that history.

Photo: Joan Marcus