“Violence is a personal necessity for the oppressed…It is not a strategy consciously devised. It is the deep, instinctive expression of a human being denied individuality.” – Richard Wright, Native Son.
It is a painful thing to watch, because we know its truth. A man makes a tragic mistake, not through malice but simple innocent error. But the mistake is profound, and the cover up precipitates a downward spiral of doom. So it was with Bigger Thomas. But Bigger was not just anyone. He was a black man in Chicago in the 1930’s, when overt abuse of African-Americans was rampant and accepted.
Richard Wright’s 1940 novel “Native Son” with Bigger at its core struck like a powerful cold wind. The literary world was unaccustomed to the situations and depictions of violence in the black community treated as the natural consequence of the environment in which blacks suffered. The work was seminal not only in its message, but in giving the African-American community is first imposing literary voice. It was also controversial in the black community because the protagonist is a criminal.
The essence of Wright’s account is distilled in Nambi E. Kelley’s compelling adaptation to the stage. And while the extremes of discrimination from Wright’s era have diminished immensely, the story resonates with truth and currency, because many of the deplorable conditions exist to this day, and new waves of intolerance and violence are emerging.
In many ways, Bigger is an archetype – a handsome, strapping, undereducated, young black man with no place to go. He knows that he is capable and that if he had the opportunity, he could fly – which is his ambition. So he seethes with palpable resentment that seems as if it could explode at any time.
Given the endemic suppression of roads to success for blacks in America, it is remarkable that lashing out against the white community by men like Bigger is not more frequent. He is a character in constant internal conflict. Playwright Kelley personifies his inner voice by creating a new character, The Black Rat, who shares the stage with the tangible Bigger and acts as his antennae and his conscience.
Fate dictates that Bigger will have a brief but complex relationship with one of Chicago’s wealthier families, the Daltons. The family scion is a real estate magnate, and it just so happens that he owns the building where Bigger’s family lives. Particularly at this time of high unemployment, largely unionized white workers fought off the incursion of unskilled blacks from the south. So it is fortunate that Dalton is willing to retain black workers. In this case, he extends the opportunity for Bigger to become his blind wife’s chauffeur.
The Dalton’s daughter, Mary, and her boyfriend, Jan, are positively taken by Bigger. The couple are ardent communists at a time when there are 400,000 card carriers in the U.S., especially in unions and among intellectuals. Many people are suspect of communists because of the generalized failure of its American branch to repudiate Stalin, but they are as much resented for their endorsement of Negro rights. Partly through patronage, partly through opportunism, and partly through lust, Mary’s obsession with Bigger would be his undoing.
Bigger’s story is told in a non-linear fashion, often as snippets as if from his stream of consciousness. A single minimalist-abstract set serves admirably for all times and spaces. A web of wooden stairs, ladders, catwalks, and platforms festoons the stage, with details left to the viewer’s imagination. A rich soundtrack supports the action, supplying a sense of everything from the striking and running of billiard balls to the howling of winter wind.
Bigger is fully realized through the duality of of body and spirit. Jerod Haynes embodies sentient Bigger, living separate lives as son, lover, and subservient. We feel his yearnings and anxieties as he bursts with emotion. William Hartfield also excels as The Black Rat, the extra dimension lurking as a menacing shadow. Also instrumental are Rosie Hallet as Mary and Adam Gill as Jan. Hallet’s depiction reflects a character whose primary motivation is self gratification. Gill portrays Jan as a true believer, exuding unctuous sincerity. Together, they capture a very special behavior – a genuine desire to elevate Bigger to their level, yet with an unmistakable condescension perhaps due to the gap in social and educational stature.
Nambi E. Kelley and director Seret Scott make little concession to the downbeat nature of Richard Wright’s topic matter. This play is not for those looking for a light evening diversion, but is rewarding to those who value the monumental significance its source material and its gravity in today’s troubled times. Although the production is strong overall, if anything, it could stand even more stridency.
“Native Son” by Nambi E. Kelly, based on the novel by Richard Wright, is produced by Marin Theatre Company and plays on their stage at 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley through February 12, 2017.