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Review: Racially Confrontational NATIVE SON Remains Too Close to Today's Violent Truth

Review: Racially Confrontational NATIVE SON Remains Too Close to Today's Violent Truth

NATIVE SON, a novel written in 1940 by Richard Wright, tells the story of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, an African American youth living in utter poverty in a poor area on Chicago's South Side in 1939. While not apologizing for Bigger's crimes, Wright portrays a systemic inevitability behind them, making the case that there is no escape from his destiny since Bigger is the inevitable product of the society in which he has lived since birth, faced by expectations imposed upon him by others tasked to teach him the proper way for a Black man to live in society.

It is often said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This is certainly the case in Wright's original story which could have been written today, given the similar news stories filling the airwaves right now involving police beatings of Black men and gun violence leading to senseless murders.

In 2014, Review: Racially Confrontational NATIVE SON Remains Too Close to Today's Violent Truth playwright Nambi E. Kelley adapted NATIVE SON for the stage, based on Wright's novel. The Antaeus Theatre Company's production of this challenging play is being presented as part of Center Theatre Group's third annual Block Party, remounted at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, directed by Andi Chapman. The cast includes Noel Arthur, Gigi Bermingham, Jon Chaffin, Ellis Greer, Matthew Grondin, Mildred Marie Langford, Ned Mochel, Victoria Platt and Brandon Rachal.

NATIVE SON centers on Bigger Thomas, a very unhappy Black man, ashamed that he can't help his mother, brother and sister as they live in rat-infested poverty after the disappearance of his father.

Review: Racially Confrontational NATIVE SON Remains Too Close to Today's Violent Truth Performed at an athletic pace on an open, multi-level set designed by Edward E. Haynes Jr., technical credits intertwine to create the dark, dank, snowy environment thanks to lighting design by Andrew Schmedake, sound design by Jeff Gardner, and projection design by Adam R. Macias which set the scene even before the play begins, right down to the noisy trains passing by and clothes hanging out to dry.

Ostensibly set a split-second inside Review: Racially Confrontational NATIVE SON Remains Too Close to Today's Violent Truth Bigger's mind as he runs from his crimes during two cold and snowy winter days in December 1939 and beyond, we first meet Bigger (Jon Chaffin, appropriately intense throughout the 90-minute show) as he chats with the well-dressed and more refined The Black Rat (Noel Arthur) who seems to be sharing Bigger's inner thoughts, often leading him into the wrong decisions. These two actors make an amazing team, allowing us to see and hear the myriad mess of confusion and fear which lead Bigger down a path of no return.

Hemmed in at every turn by his own self-doubts as well as an oppressive white power structure, Review: Racially Confrontational NATIVE SON Remains Too Close to Today's Violent Truth Bigger reluctantly takes a job as a chauffeur for a rich white family, led by blind Mrs. Dalton (Gigi Bermingham). On his first night on the job, Bigger is instructed to take the Dalton's wild, rebellious daughter Mary (Ellis Greer) to a social engagement. But things don't go as planned, with Mary meeting up with Jan (Matthew Grondin) and then drinking to excess. By the end of the evening, Bigger has to carry the falling down drunk Mary up to her room, with Greer apparently losing every bone in her body during the scene! Fearful of discovery by her mother, Bigger's decision to muffle Mary with her pillow turns deadly, Review: Racially Confrontational NATIVE SON Remains Too Close to Today's Violent Truth causing him to panic and set in motion a series of bad decisions that takes his life, his family's and his girlfriend Bessie's (Mildred Marie Langford) futures rapidly downhill.

As Bigger and The Black Rat traverse back-and-forth across the many levels, almost as if running from cage to cage, a raging snowstorm delays their ability to escape the law, represented by Chicago native Ned Mochel as Britten, who relentlessly follows Bigger until his capture and trial. There is no doubt of the ending, and director Chapman handles its brutality with dignity and compassion due to all human beings, even though many may not agree given his violent path to get there.

NATIVE SON is not an easy play to grasp without some understanding of the story prior to witnessing it on the stage. Review: Racially Confrontational NATIVE SON Remains Too Close to Today's Violent Truth And with such violence against women, instances which no doubt led to the #MeToo movement uniting women against such horrific treatment, as well as the startling dumping of bodies into a furnace and elevator shaft, this play is not for the squeamish. However, it is an excellent exercise in brilliant acting and staging, a feast for the eyes amid the torment to the emotions.

Tickets for NATIVE SON through April 28, 2019 range from $27 - $77, available by calling (213) 628-2772, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, at the Center Theatre Group Box Office at the Ahmanson Theatre or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre Box Office two hours prior to performance. The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA 90232. Free three hour covered parking at City Hall with validation (available in the Kirk Douglas Theatre lobby).

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz




From This Author - Shari Barrett

Shari Barrett, a Los Angeles native, has been active in the theater world since the age of six - acting, singing, and dancing her way across the boards all over town. After teaching in secondary schools,... (read more about this author)


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