BWW Review: Stray Cat Theatre Presents NATIVE SON
"I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for 'em."
When you're but 20 years old and this is your epiphany, borne of the social slings and toxic arrows first of slavery and then of inescapable poverty, what else can life look like but a dead end?
If it is you, not I, that has defined me and my brethren ~ if it is you, not I, that creates the expectations of my behavior ~ if it is you, not I, that creates the circumstances that drive me to fulfill your expectations ~ if I rage finally against your abuses but serve only to reaffirm your imagery ~ can I ever be free?
In creating Bigger Thomas as the face of the Negro stereotype and the voice of this ineffable despair, Richard Wright's 1940 novel NATIVE SON aimed to spark a conversation about race in America, to reveal the wounds created by the perpetuation of this disease called otherness. Over 75 years later, the conversation goes on, begging still for the level of clarity and candor that might move a nation beyond racism.
Nambi E Kelley's expressionist adaptation of Wright's work into a ninety-minute one-act roller coaster of electrifying emotion is a timely and provocative contribution to the conversation. In the directorial hands of Ron May, Stray Cat Theatre's current production of NATIVE SON offers an unnerving and intense portrayal of Bigger Thomas's downward spiral set against David J Castellano's dour urban landscape. May's choreographic sensibility manages to take what might otherwise feel like chaotic scene shifts and weaves the sequences into a comprehensive and comprehensible whole.
Kelley's script begins in medias res with Bigger's unintentional suffocation of his white employer's daughter and pivots between flashbacks to life with his family and his breathless flight from the authorities. Bigger (played with fury by Micah Jondel Deshazer) is a soul on fire, bereft of hope, seething with frustration and anger, sexual and desperate, and in an endless state of panic. Along the way, he is shadowed by an alter ego, Black Rat (cool and smooth talking Alan Johnson), a street savvy counsel and a candid counterpoint to Bigger's reflections.
Having recently reviewed I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, I looked back to see what was James Baldwin's take on Wright's novel (and thus, what it might be on Kelley's play). Interestingly, Baldwin soundly criticized the work as a protest novel, occupied by caricatures in service to a social or political agenda. ("I don't imagine many black people would have embraced such a grotesque portrait of themselves.") He thought that Bigger served as "a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend that NATIVE SON was written to destroy." Baldwin had a different slant on how to address racism in America. Between Wright and Baldwin, there's the span of decades ~ and racism still abides whether or not Bigger ever did. Kelley re-presents the caricature and we are left to determine what to make of it. Are his crimes, understandable, forgivable, or as ERich Fromm might have asked, normal reactions to abnormal conditions? Where do we place the story of Bigger Thomas in today's national conversation about race? Do we fully comprehend the toll on the soul and the price we pay for racism?
NATIVE SON runs through March 25th at the Helen K Mason Performing Arts Center.
Photo credit to John Groseclose