BWW Review: NATIVE SON at Mosaic Theater Company
When it was published in 1940, Richard Wright's novel, Native Son was revolutionary in how it portrayed racial issues in the United States. The story centers around Bigger Thomas, a young black man who, in a moment of panic and desperation, commits a terrible crime. The broader story shows the circumstances that would put Bigger in this situation - not to excuse the crime, but to contextualize it in a way that makes the reader sympathize with the situation many black Americans found themselves in at the time. It's not a stretch to say that part of the novel's longevity in our culture stems from the fact that, while things have improved, many of the core issues remain even today.
The famous novel has been adapted for film and stage numerous times since its publication, but Mosaic Theater Company's production of Nambi E. Kelley's interpretation is quite unique, and provides a new way of examining Bigger's story (as any good adaptation should). In this version, we meet Bigger not at the beginning, but at his breaking point - at the moment of the transgression that will define him. From there, we are swept into a series of flashbacks, which are interspersed with what happens next; we begin in the middle, but quickly learn that the act and the response are deeply rooted in what has come before.
It would be easy for this sort of structure to be confusing - in fact, it probably should be. And yet, the cast, under the direction of Psalmayene 24, handles this work so deftly, that very little confusion remains after the first few scene changes; Kelley's excellent transitions (often repeating phrases that work in both contexts) certainly aid this, but the cast also is so fully immersed that their earnestness brings the viewer up to speed. This is achieved, in part, by the inclusion of the Black Rat, a character who embodies Bigger's inner voice. Vaughn Ryan Midder and Clayton Pelham Jr portray the Black Rat and Bigger, respectively, as both individuals who react to the other's actions, but also very much as a public/private pairing. Sometimes, the Black Rat says what Bigger dares not say in front of others; sometimes he questions Bigger's actions or advises him. Through these two characters, we learn more about Bigger himself - how he sees himself, and how he understand that others see him. The play between the two actors is fascinating, and forms a solid foundation for a solid show.
The supporting cast is equally skilled in telling this tragic tale. Madeline Joe Rose's Mary brings just enough levity (particularly when she is singing black spirituals, off-key) to serve as a grounding contrast to the show's heavier topics. Likewise, Mary's mother, Mrs. Dalton, is portrayed with a touch of wryness by Melissa Flaim, whose cat (a puppet she controls) is just funny and ominous enough to fit the tale. Renee Elizabeth Wilson pulls double-duty as Bigger's sister Vera and his girlfriend Bessie; her portrayal of the latter is heartbreaking, as we understand quickly that poor Bessie's fate is as tied to her status as it is to Bigger's actions, and she is stripped of any real control.
The sparse, versatile set (the work of Ethan Sinnott) has just enough edge (literally, in the case of the pieces styled to look like broken glass) to carry the tone of the play, especially when paired with William K. D'Eugenio's dark mood lighting. Unfortunately, the skill displayed also made the delay in the projections for closed captioning quite frustrating (Native Son is intended to be a fully accessible run). While the interest in accessibility is wonderful, I heard more than one audience member express exasperation when they were unable to follow the opening of the show. However, once the projections kicked in, they blended into the show design nicely.
Native Son is a heavy drama with an important story to tell. But what makes this production really shine is Psalmayene 24's guiding emphasis on "radicalizing empathy." In Mosaic Theater Company's production, the audience isn't asked to excuse Bigger, but to try to understand him. That understanding, that empathy, it's suggested, can go a long way in ensuring that the circumstances surrounding Bigger's story can maybe be kept in the past.
Mosaic Theater Company's production of Native Son runs through April 28th. The production is 90 minutes long with no intermission, and features adult content and adult language, including a portrayal of sexual assault. All performances are accessible and accompanied with projected subtitles. Select performances will feature a talkback with the cast and production team - information can be found on the Mosaic website, along with ticket information.
Photo Credit: Stan Barouh