Court Theatre and American Blues Theatre. By Richard Wright. Adapted by Nambi E. Kelley. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 25mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
To call this new adaptation of Richard Wright’s seminal Chicago novel a stirring accomplishment feels like an understatement. Playwright Nambi E. Kelley’s achievement is impressive not only for successfully dramatizing the tale of Bigger Thomas and his seemingly inevitable succumbing to systemic racism and poverty on the South Side, but for doing so by not being slavish to her source.
Kelley’s lean and muscular script—developed over several years by American Blues Theater, where she’s an ensemble member (the premiere at Court Theatre is a coproduction between the two companies)—chops up Wright’s linear narrative into an impressionistic, episodic collection of scenes. Smartly, Kelley opens with Bigger (Jerod Haynes) accidentally killing Mary (Nora Fiffer), the daughter of his white employer, immediately setting the stakes for those unfamiliar with the novel before flashing back to trace how Bigger got there.
Equally astute is Kelley’s decision to have two Biggers onstage. Haynes is the protagonist, in an intense, nicely layered performance that adds another famous Chicago character to his résumé after playing Walter Lee Younger in TimeLine’s A Raisin in the Sun last year. But he’s shadowed by Eric Lynch as The Black Rat, a name symbolically borrowed from the rat Bigger kills in his family’s tiny apartment in Wright’s opening scene. This is Bigger’s subconscious—sometimes his conscience, sometimes his survival instincts, but always a manifestation of everything he’s internalized about his place in the world as a black man, the voice in his head that tells him he’s of no more worth than that rat.
It’s quite the clever device, activating Bigger’s internal monologue by making it a dialogue. And director Seret Scott’s staging uses it well to establish how Bigger’s head can be in one scene while he’s physically present in another. Regina Garcia’s stark, multilevel set provides for multiple playing areas, richly delineated by Marc Stubblefield’s lighting, and Haynes and Lynch are surrounded by a skilled ensemble, with excellent support from the likes of Shanésia Davis as Bigger’s mother, Hannah, and Tracey N. Bonner doubling as his sister, Vera, and girlfriend, Bessie.
Some fans of Wright’s book may not agree with Kelley’s decision to elide its last third, covering Bigger’s trial; this means we miss some of Bigger’s social awakening, but I imagine she thought it best to excise the trial arguments of the Communist Party lawyer who represents him. But at a fast-moving, powerful 85 minutes, this Native Son does what it sets out to do with passionate drive.