Author Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, has been a point of debate ever since it was first published. The story of a 20-year-old black youth from the poor side of 1930s Chicago who accidentally commits a terrible crime was a best-seller from day one. At the time, it made author Wright the father of Black American literature. Countless essays, pro and con, were written about its protagonist, Bigger Thomas. Schools and libraries have challenged parents who wanted it removed from either the classroom or the bookshelves. The American Library Association even lists it as one of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000.
Writer Nambi E. Kelley’s recent adaption of Wright’s novel is different, and it’s this version you’ll currently see at the Helen K Mason Performing Arts Center, produced by Ron May’s Stray Cat Theatre and directed by May. Performed on David J Castellano’s highly effective set consisting of raised, wooden platforms on a brick base, steps, a balcony level and a small shed with a worn, corrugated iron roof suggesting Bigger’s family home in the poverty-stricken area of Chicago’s 1939 South Side, Kelley’s version of Native Son restores all the plot points removed from the Welles 1941 production.
...director May uses the set, positioning his actors in blocking that takes maximum, effective advantage of the available spaces and elevated levels; it’s the play’s construction. Told in brief, fragmented segments that jump back and forward, beginning with the end and finally circling back to the same scene, there’s a moment of adjustment required until the audience can settle into the play’s disunited rhythms, and it’s never a comfortable settle.
Producing the story as a theatrical mosaic that ultimately presents one clear picture of the events certainly achieves an overall, eventual feel to Wright’s powerful themes, but if it wasn’t for Stray Cat’s excellent cast and its clear passion for the piece – particularly Micah Jondel DeShazer’s performance as Bigger, which is nothing short of heart-wrenching, and Joseph Kremer’s effectively subtle portrayal of white privilege (he thinks he understands but remains ignorant to the realities of Black life maintained in his ghetto, over-priced rentals) – watching Nambi E. Kelley’s new play is in danger for some as being an exercise in audience passivity; you enjoy the art but remain without response.
Native Son’s Bigger Thomas commits two terrible crimes. Wright’s novel argues that the choices he makes in order to escape his fate are really the choices already forced upon him by others who are rarely in a position to make those same choices themselves, or would ever suffer the consequences. What’s really interesting here are Ron May’s choices for Stray Cat. The director and founder of the company makes consistently interesting theatrical decisions in his schedules that rarely reflects mainstream entertainment. Yet with each passing season, plus experience accrued, somehow he delivers all with the assured polish of a production reserved for popular taste, and on a limited budget. With Native Son, Stray Cat Theatre has produced a dynamic interpretation of a flawed script.