It took an enormous amount of nerve to present Native Son, a relentlessly unsympathetic look at racism, by Nambi E. Kelley. Fortunately, Stray Cat Theatre artistic director Ron May has that nerve, and the talent, to bring this difficult drama to the stage.
Micah Jondel Deshazer and Alan Johnson, playing two halves of a terrified whole, fully inhabit operatic roles. As Bigger, Deshazer captures our attention with artful stillness in one moment, noisy sorrow the next. There’s subtle resentment in his voice when he’s speaking to his white employers; a fearful growl of anger in speeches made to his alter ego. As that alter ego, Johnson is strutting and rancorous, coaching Bigger in how to kill and where to hide his panic. With swagger and a vile whisper, he neatly conveys what it feels like to be treated like a smelly “black rat,” pursued by villains.
These performances never falter under Ron May’s immaculate direction. His calisthenic blocking requires May’s cast to move from past to present in literal leaps, and he affects these transitions with athletic precision. This movement is choreographed on and around David J. Castellano’s magnificent, maze-like set, one that folds these isolated, frightened people into shadows created by Dallas Nichols’ smart lighting design. Nichols creates a darkness that is practically an 11th character in Kelley’s play.