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Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham

Native Son
PlayMakers Repertory Company
Review by Garrett Southerland


The Cast
Photo by HuthPhoto
A man kills a woman, then spends the rest of his life running from the consequences. That in itself is the stuff of drama. But what if the man is black, the woman is white, the time is the 1930s, and the death is truly an accident, though the black man will never convince anyone of that? How has that black man's entire life backed him into this corner, long before he struggles to deal with the aftermath? This is the stuff of the seminal novel Native Son by Richard Wright, adapted for the stage in 2014 by Nambi E. Kelley. The PlayMakers Repertory Company production of this new version plays at the Paul Green Theatre through September 29.

The black man in question is Bigger Thomas (portrayed with great conviction by Brandon Herman St. Clair Haynes), who is growing up in the black belt of Chicago. The white woman who dies at his hands is wealthy socialite Mary (Sarah Elizabeth Keyes), whose family had recently employed Bigger as their chauffeur. As this crime story unfolds, we see more of Bigger's life with his family and friends, and explore the gray area between societal injustice and the bad personal choices made by everyone involved.

Richard Wright's intention was to force his readers to confront the way racism seeped into all corners of American life. Some have questioned whether he was successful, or whether he created a work that reinforced stereotypes and fueled racial fear. As an interesting side note, soon after its publication in 1940, Wright made his own adaptation of Native Son for the stage, a collaboration with Paul Green, for whom the PlayMakers theater is named, on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. That version premiered on Broadway in 1941 with Orson Welles directing. In Wright and Green's version, much of the plot was removed to get down to a reasonable running time.

Nambi E. Kelley has restored much of that plot, but she keeps it condensed to a 90-minute play without an intermission. For that to happen, the audience is sent through rapid shifts among Bigger's memories. That back-and-forth makes it difficult to keep track of how one event sets Bigger up for his next poor choice, leaving moments that should be quite unnerving and emotional rather empty. (The worst example of this comes with Bigger's second murder.)

One of the central concepts of Ms. Kelley's adaptation is the symbolic rat repeatedly referenced in the novel, which becomes a full character here as Bigger's shadow self (portrayed by Brandon J. Pierce). The Black Rat's only goal is survival, and it gives Bigger advice that only leads to more catastrophe. Though the concept is interesting, the creative choice isn't clearly established in the script but relies on the audience already knowing the novel or reading the program notes carefully. It doesn't help that Bobbi Owen, a PlayMakers mainstay since its inception, has costumed the Black Rat as an aviator, a profession Bigger dreams of having yet knows he will never have because whites would never allow it. It's difficult to decide whether the Black Rat is supposed to embody Bigger's aspirations or his base instincts.

Director Colette Robert, making her PlayMakers debut, harnesses the quick changes of place and time admirably, keeping the non-linear storytelling as coherent as possible. She is greatly assisted in this effort by Lawrence E. Moten III, also in his PlayMakers debut, with his eye-catching design of a Chicago factory looming over a terraced floor painted like a dirtied American flag, and by Reza Behjat's lighting design (a PlayMakers debut as well), which shifts us effectively through space and time.

Nearly eighty years later after it was published, one cannot help but see the relevance of the novel and of the play it has inspired. Our troubled racial history runs deep, and the rifts we are trying to heal today bear shocking resemblance to those faced by generations before us. Whether in its book form or as a play, Native Son is a challenging expression of the challenge we face.

PlayMakers Repertory Company's Native Son runs through September 29, 2019, at the Paul Green Theatre, Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill NC. Tickets can be purchased online at www.playmakersrep.org or by phone at 919-962-7529.

Based on the Novel by: Richard Wright
Playwright: Nambi E. Kelley
Director: Colette Robert
Scenic Design: Lawrence E. Moten, III
Costume Design: Bobbi Owen
Lighting Design: Reza Behjat
Sound Design and Composer: G. Clausen
Movement and Intimacy Choreographer: Tracy Bersley

Cast (in alphabetical order):
Bessie/Vera/Ensemble: April Mae Davis
Mrs. Dalton/Ensemble: Julia Gibson
Bigger Thomas: Brandon Herman St. Clair Haynes
Hannah/Ensemble: Tia James
Mary/Ensemble: Sarah Elizabeth Keyes
Buddy/Ensemble: Amadio
The Black Rat: Brandon J. Pierce
Jan/Ensemble: Adam Poole
Britten/Ensemble: Daniel Wilson


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