Review: ‘Native Son’ at the Antaeus Theatre Company

Nambi E. Kelley's adaptation of "Native Son" tackles issues of racism.

Based on Richard Wright's 1940 novel of the same name, "Native Son" at Antaeus Theatre Company tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man living in Chicago in the 1930s. A chauffeur for a wealthy white family, Bigger's life alters irreparably when he accidentally smothers Mary Dalton, his employers' only daughter. Nambi E. Kelley's adaptation creates an intimate portrait of the goings-on of Bigger's mind, both before and after the tragic event to show just how insidious and inescapable institutional racism is. "All this is inside my head" shouts Bigger, late in the play, tying together many of the textual elements, direction, and design choices, not that they really need it: The anachronistic timeline, simple set, and specific staging complement one another expertly to create a complicated, nuanced, and dynamic portrait of a man trapped by white supremacy.

Right off the bat, Jon Chaffin is an absolute force as Bigger, bringing humor, conflict, and a powerful energy to the character of Bigger. The best part of this production is seeing Bigger's internal monologue manifest itself on his face, and watching him exercise self-control while his inner self (or "The Black Rat," played by Noel Arthur) speaks his uncomfortable truth while standing behind him. For much of the play, The Black Rat takes the back seat (literally and figuratively), which is a bit of a shame, because during a scene near the end, when Bigger and the Black Rat engage in a dialogue that symbolizes Bigger's inner dilemma, Noel Arthur's Rat is finally allowed to shine, showing his equal strength as an actor. Along with Chaffin and Arthur, the rest of the ensemble holds the show together beautifully. The only exception to this might be Ellis Greer, whose portrayal of Mary Dalton sometimes verges on the comical in parts of the story where that feels out of place, and thus not believable in context. Otherwise, the ensemble beautifully weaves together different parts of Bigger's life: His relationship with his family, his job working for the Daltons, his friendships, and his flawed love affair with his girlfriend, Bessie, which, thanks to a visceral and lively performance by Mildred Marie Langford, becomes a disturbing turning point for Bigger's character. For the most part, the actors seem unified in style— a style which helps create Bigger's internal and external world.

Aside from Bigger's inner conflict and outer life, there are a few different physical places he occupies, and slightly disordered points in time that are relevant to the story. Luckily, most of the action only takes place over the course of two days, so the non-linear nature of time in the beginning of the play never gets too confusing, and, thanks to the direction and expert writing, makes sense. Andi Chapman's simple staging here ensures that the audience understands what is happening to Bigger, giving us only the information we need. It uses different parts of the stage for different realms of Bigger's life, allowing for movement, and representing the passage of time well. In fact, it is almost astounding how such simplicity can actually tell us so much about where and when each scene takes place. It also contributes to a rising sense of action and peril for Bigger as he nears the consequences for his mistake and realizes that, no matter what he does, his race will be used against him. This is what motivates his actions after Mary's death, and after that discovery, the energy of the play is at a fever pitch almost the whole time. As a result, almost every scene in the last third of the play feels like the climax, and that sustained level of tension is exhausting to watch, lacking the natural movement and flow present in the former two thirds of the play. The upside to this, however, comes in the one moment of relative calm, when Bigger soliloquizes about his situation, accepting what he has done, what has happened to him, and what is going to happen to him, and coming to the conclusion that he is finally free. Because the previous scenes leading up to this one are so tiring, we feel Bigger's world-weariness and discover clarity right along with him.

The final element that makes this production work is the production design. It is rather spartan. The only permanent fixture is a raised platform in the back that juts forward on the sides, with a wooden frame that allows the platform to resemble a room separate from the lower part of the stage. This is the right choice for the text, as a complicated set would obstruct its story, and its meaning. In order to create the different physical spaces Bigger inhabits, as well as take us back in time to the 1930s, the design employs projections. Clips from newsreels make the historical world seem real and current, while a projection of snow is a powerful use of symbolism: When the swirling white spots are projected onto the set, covering the walls and the actors' bodies, it gives the sense of surrounding the entire space, and the inescapability of white supremacy at the crux of "Native Son" becomes incredibly evident.

"Native Son" runs at the Kiki and David Gindler Performing Arts Center in Glendale through June 3.