Category Archive for: ‘Woody Weingarten’

‘Native Son’ is a potent tale of black oppression, but…

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★☆

Beleaguered Bigger Thomas (Jerod Haynes) is flanked by spirited whites, Mary (Rosie Hallett) and Jan (Adam Magill), and plagued by his alter ego, The Black Rat (William Hartfield, in shadows). Photo by Kevin Berne.

Beleaguered Bigger Thomas (Jerod Haynes) is flanked by spirited whites, Mary (Rosie Hallett) and Jan (Adam Magill), and plagued by his alter ego, The Black Rat (William Hartfield, in shadows). Photo by Kevin Berne.

“Native Son” is an exceptionally powerful play.

One that potentially could goad white Marin residents into pushing harder for black social equality.

But I question whether the Marin Theatre Company, where the 90-minute show’s running, isn’t merely preaching to the choir — even if that liberal choir’s singing Black Lives Matter in multi-part harmony.

I’d be willing to lay odds there wasn’t a single Trump voter in the audience on opening night.

 The nonlinear play, adapted from an iconic, groundbreaking 1940 novel by Richard Wright about systemic racism, justice and freedom, is at once surreal and impressionistic, jaggedly zipping across timeframes of present and past.

And, if a theatergoer will allow it, sure to get under his or her skin — no matter what color that skin is.

I first read Wright’s novel in my early teens. I loved the passion and vitriol yet understood little because I didn’t know any oppressed Negroes.

Reading “Native Son,” however, led me to Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” several of James Baldwin’s essay collections and novels, and, eventually, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

Not to mention a love of “race records” and, ultimately, Alan Freed’s radio broadcasts that extoled the virtues of rhythm and blues.

None of that, of course, could lead me — a white male — to genuine empathy.

And neither (though Nambi E. Kelley marvelously adapted it from the book) did the MTC play.

Despite its inherent passion and vitriol, mega-potent acting by Jerod Haynes and the rest of the sterling ensemble, top-notch directing by Seret Scott, and ultra-exciting stagecraft, sound and lighting.

It all takes place in cold, snowy Chicago, in the mind’s-eye of Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old black man from a rat-infested environment who accidentally kills a white heiress and flees the crime scene.

Wright, son of a sharecropper who liked to insert his Communist leanings into his work, based his novel on a real story, one in which a black man was electrocuted.

Kelley — who purportedly began working on her adaptation right after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin in 2013 — fabricated Bigger’s alter ego/conscience in the corporeal form of The Black Rat, a shadowy figure who often replicates Bigger’s words.

And sometimes contradicts them.

That voice is riddled with echoes of the trap the protagonist finds himself in, summed up by this line:

“White folks don’t let us do nuthin’.”

Bigger, in fact, is not allowed to be a man but a subhuman colored person, a Negro, a black male, a nigger.

A big rat he kills early on becomes a palpable metaphor reflecting his self-image, yet it’s chilling to watch his descent into a hell that reflected real life in the late ‘30s and, sadly, real life in 2017.

The play — in contrast to the lily white society that rapidly closes in on Bigger, and the lily white cat constantly fondled by one supporting character — is dark.

Its actual set is dark.

Unfortunately, considering who just took up residence in the White House, the audience has scant hope of escaping like darknesses in the near future.

“Native Son” will play at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, through Feb. 12. Night performances, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; matinees, 2 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $22 to $60. Information: (415) 388-5208 or

Contact Woody Weingarten at or


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