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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

Native Son

Also see Susan's review of See What I Wanna See and 2009 Helen Hayes Awards Report

Native Son
JaBen A. Early
Sometimes a historically significant play, when rediscovered, turns out to be more interesting as a curiosity than as a fulfilling dramatic experience. American Century Theater in Arlington, Virginia, is presenting Native Son, the 1941 play by Richard Wright and Paul Green adapted from Wright's 1940 novel, but where the plot of the book moves with a feverish energy, the play drags and might work better as a reading than a fully staged production.

Director Bob Bartlett is working with a large canvas, moving 20 actors through a constantly shifting sequence of scenes—the play runs almost two hours without intermission—in the life of Bigger Thomas (JaBen A. Early), a struggling young African-American man in late 1930s Chicago. Bigger lives in a one-room tenement apartment with his religious mother (Renee Charlow) and a younger brother and sister; he's resentful over the family's poverty, mad at the world, and has been in trouble with the law.

Bigger lives in a world of strict divisions of race and class. When fate gives him a step up as chauffeur to wealthy, self-consciously "liberal" Henry G. Dalton (Mick Tindle), Bigger is puzzled both by the condescending kindness of Mrs. Dalton (Danni Stewart) and the attempts by their politically radical daughter Mary (Julie Roundtree) to understand his life experience. His situation is a catastrophe waiting to happen, and it does soon enough.

Early succeeds in carrying this immense role, and the entire production, on his shoulders. Most of the other performers have little chance to make much impact, but Bud Stringer stands out as the Communist lawyer who eloquently defends Bigger in the ultimate battle for his life.

Michael Null and Trena Weiss-Null have created a fluid scenic design that uses a few pieces of furniture in a sequence of settings. Still, this movement adds to the length of the performance to minimal effect. Ed Mose's sound design does a good, economical job in setting the scene.

American Century Theater
Native Son
April 14th May 9th
By Paul Green and Richard Wright
Bigger Thomas: JaBen A. Early
Hannah Thomas: Renee Charlow
Vera Thomas: Iman Hassen
Buddy Thomas: Kalon Hayward
Miss Emmet/Stenographer: Megan Graves
Jack Henson: Mark McKinnon
Clara Mears: Farah Lawal
Gus Mitchell: Jivon Lee Jackson
G.H. Rankin: Jared Shamberger
Ernie Jones/Reverend Hammond: Paul Andrew Morton
Henry G. Dalton: Mick Tinder
Jeff Britten: Bruce Alan Rauscher
Peggy MacAulife: Christine Hirrel
Ellen Dalton: Danni Stewart
Mary Dalton: Julia Roundtree
Jan Erlone: Evan Crump
Jed Norris: Brian Razzino
Edward Max: Bud Stringer
David A. Buckley: John Geoffrion
Judge Alvin C. Hanley: Rob Weinzimer
Directed by Bob Bartlett
Gunston Theatre II, 2700 S. Lang St.
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: www.americancentury.org


Photo: Micah Hutz Photography


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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