How far have race relations truly progressed in America today? This question is at the forefront of Nambi E. Kelley’s “Native Son,” a bold stage adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel of the same name, which opened last Saturday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The Antaeus Theatre Company production, directed with precision and clarity by Andi Chapman, was 90 minutes of seething rage, raw power and epic theatricality.
Adapting a novel for the stage is a monumental task, especially when it is an 80-year-old American classic, but Kelley’s script manages to relay an appropriate amount of the original plot for unfamiliar audiences, while also capturing the essence of Wright’s narrative voice.
Originally published in 1940, “Native Son” tells the story of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, a black man living on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s who murders the daughter of his white boss. Kelley’s adaptation hits key plot points, and Chapman’s experimental staging, along with elaborate projection design by Adam R. Macias, work together to draw the audience into Bigger’s world. It really feels as if we are jumping inside of the book itself, and following Bigger through it as he tells us his story.
Much in the way Wright’s narrative is a series of disjointed memories, time is blurred throughout the production. Two scenes that take place days apart unfold side-by-side simultaneously onstage. While this can be confusing, this staging mimics the way Bigger is processing the aftermath of the murder and allows us to empathize with him.
Jon Chaffin, who plays Bigger, creates an incredibly empathetic character. His physicality is breathtaking to watch. In a scene in which he threatens his brother (Brandon Rachal) with physical violence, Chaffin is swaggering and confident. Chaffin then manages to completely transform himself in an entirely different scene, when he is awkwardly shoved between his boss’s daughter (Ellis Greer) and her communist lover (Matthew Grondin) in the front seat of a car. In this scene, Chaffin trades his swaggering demeanor for one of hunched submission, and the sweat pouring down his face under the glaring spotlight reveals the simmering frustration beneath the surface. He does all of this without losing the integrity of his character throughout the show.
Chapman’s direction is incredibly stylized, and nothing reveals this more than the staging of The Black Rat. The Black Rat, played by the equally chameleonic Noel Arthur, is simultaneously Bigger’s other half and the narrator of the play. Arthur voices Chaffin’s inner thoughts for the duration of the play, addressing the audience when Bigger cannot. In other scenes, he literally becomes Bigger, so that Chaffin can play Bigger in a different scene on the other side of the stage at the same time. Again, this can be confusing at times. Sometimes it is hard to tell who is Bigger, and who is The Black Rat. But this is entirely intentional, as the ending makes clear.
The set, crafted with minimalist care by Edward E. Haynes Jr., is barren, the exposed brick backdrop and wood scaffolding evoking an abandoned warehouse. The clothesline hanging off to the left of the stage is the only suggestion of life in this cold, empty space. Haynes clearly designed the space with versatility in mind, as stage right becomes both the house of Bigger’s boss and a foreclosed apartment, while the clothesline acts as a placeholder for spaces that make Bigger feel safe, such as his home, or his lover’s apartment. The set, much like the actors, is easily transformed.
The projection design is a character in itself. At the top of the show, the black and white projections and sounds recall a train station, establishing a transitional space that feels temporary and exposed. Later, in one of the most beautiful and chilling scenes, a snowstorm overwhelms Bigger in frozen whiteness as he attempts to evade the cops. At one point the falling snow seems so overwhelming, one cannot help but connect the snow to the whiteness that has suffocated Bigger all his life and made it impossible for him to survive.
Casting itself plays a fundamental role in establishing the ideas behind the play. At one point the communist lover and the private detective charged with solving the murder both emerge from the back of the audience as policemen hunting Bigger through the streets of Chicago. The two actors are eerily suited for those roles, and the double-casting highlights the similarities between someone charged with “protecting” vulnerable whites from the dangerous Black Rat (think: George Zimmerman) and someone equally inspired to supposedly “save” those black brethren from the clenched fist of capitalism. Having the two emerge from the audience and beat, strip, and tie Bigger up, implicates the audience in this injustice. You can be sure that everyone left the theatre with a chill running down their spine.
"Native Son" runs now until April 28th at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here.
Correction: The author of this article was initially incorrect and has since been updated with the correct author.