By Karen Isaacs
The Yale Rep production of Native Son as written and adapted by Nambi E. Kelly is at times chilling but also confusing. It runs through December 16.
Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, is said by some to have opened the door to African-American literature. It certainly was an important and best-selling work that is still often taught in schools. The novel cast a harsh light on the effect of societal racism has on individuals.
This adaptation, first performed in 2014 is the third such attempt. It’s hard to tell if it is more successful than the others, but for some in the audience, while well produced and well-acted, it was basically unsatisfactory.
The novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old African American living with his mother and younger sister and brother in a Chicago slum. He and his friends are planning a holdup of a white owned store. More importantly he is interviewed and hired by a white couple to be their chauffeur. On his first evening on the job, he is driving the young adult daughter to the university where she is a student. Instead she asks him to pick up her boyfriend, the communist organizer Jan; the two of them ask Bigger to take them to a dinner in his neighborhood. Jan and Mary drink quite a bit, and when Bigger takes her home, she can barely stand. He helps to her room and when Mary’s blind mother appears, he puts a pillow on Mary’s head. By the time the mother leaves, Mary is dead. The rest of the play deals with the snowball effects of that act.
Dramatizing this work is not easy. Kelley has decided to describe it as “a split second insider Bigger’s mind when her runs from his crime, remembers, images, two cold and snowy winter days in December 1939 and beyond.” You can parse that sentence many ways and come up with many possible interpretations.
Is what are you seeing, what happened? What he imagines will happen? The novel was more linear in its story telling.
The audience is left to try to figure out not only what is happening, but is it true or some sort of nightmare. In addition, a character called “The Black Rat” is omnipresent; sometimes he seems like a narrator, at other times Bigger’s conscience and sometimes as the adult version of Bigger. It definitely adds some confusion to the story telling, especially for those unfamiliar with the original novel.
Bigger – and at times The Black Rat – often talk about how African Americans have two views of themselves. The view they see and the one reflected back to them from the white society. Digger believes that he becomes what that reflected view says he is. Certainly the whites in the play view Bigger as someone less than equal and sometimes less than human. His employer Mrs. Dalton suspects he may never have slept in a bed. Her daughter, Mary and Jan, her communist boyfriend, may claim to have his interests at heart, but there is a large measure of condescension in their professed support. They know best and he should follow along; after all he can’t be expected to understand.
Of course, the detective the family hires to find their missing daughter, and the police exhibit stereotypical racism.
Overall the production is excellent. Scenic designer Ryan Emens has created a cityscape of iron fire escapes, while lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge has given us the moody and dramatic lighting. Combined with the jazzy sounds by Frederick Kennedy, the total result is a very film noir feel to the piece.
As Bigger, Jerod Haynes combines the rashness of youth and the anger of a disenfranchised young man. He portrays the bravado but also the lack of confidence. His portrayal is riveting.
Director Seret Scott has is given this piece a film noir atmosphere which is most appropriate. She has not sugar-coated the actions or the feelings in this piece. The result is a play that will encourage to confront your own understandings about our society.
Native Son is running through Dec. 16. For tickets visit Yale Rep or call 203-432-1234.