I wish one could say that Nambi E. Kelley’s incisive adaptation of novelist Richard Wright’s Native Son, brilliantly staged at Antaeus Theatre Ensemble under Andi Chapman’s direction, was testament to a 20th-century mindset we’ve long transcended. But as many of us are painfully aware, the stereotyping of minorities — and in this case black men in particular — persists like a grotesque contagion on our body politic. You have only to reference the recent arrest of two law-abiding young black citizens at a Philadelphia Starbucks, and the tragic incidents, continually erupting in the headlines, in which police assault and kill people of color without cause, to grasp the timeliness of this powerful drama.
Wright’s novel was published in 1940. The writer was born in Mississippi but, like so many other African-Americans, migrated north in hope of escaping the South’s pernicious racism, only to find the bigotry there more covert but no less ubiquitous.
Native Son — which claimed celebrity immediately following publication and has since become a classic — is set in Chicago and tells the story of an angry young black man, Bigger Thomas (Jon Chaffin), who accidentally commits a homicide and is pursued not only by the law but by his internal — and internalized — demons. These include the rage and frustration brought about by his lack of opportunity to go after what he wants (he dreams of being a pilot) and the negative image foisted upon him by white people, predisposed to regard him as stupid, shiftless or criminal based on the color of his skin.
This burden of being prejudged by others is at the core of both the novel and the play. But Kelley makes a singular change in her adaptation: She creates a new character, the Black Rat (Noel Arthur), an interior self, savvier and more articulate than the public Bigger (who tends to skulk and sulk), and the inner voice that keeps reminding him of his humiliating pariah status in society. Bigger and the Black Rat frequently engage in dialogue; one of their most mesmerizing scenes takes place as Bigger deliberates what to do about his longtime lover Bessie (Mildred Marie Langford), who knows he’s killed a white woman. “Can’t leave her,” “can’t take her with,” the pair intone about Bessie prior to his flight, till the resolution of their problem becomes clear to them both.
Kelley’s rendering of the story isn’t linear — if you’re looking for a chronological retelling of the novel’s narrative, you won’t find it here. Instead, almost immediately we witness the unintended dramatic demise of the drunk and flirtatious white debutante Mary (Ellis Greer), the daughter of Bigger’s employers — an incident that takes place further on in the book. From that point the narrative slips back and forth non-sequentially, with flashbacks to Bigger’s childhood juxtaposed with events that take place before and after the crime: a scene in the poolroom where Bigger plans a robbery, an interview with Mary’s blind patrician mother (a spot-on Gigi Bermingham), a night on the town with Mary and her communist boyfriend Jan (Matthew Grondin) (in which, prior to the fateful accident, this privileged pair do their white liberal best to make Bigger feel accepted but succeed only in making him feel more uncomfortable).
Intense from the start, the piece grows even darker and more chaotic as Bigger (and the Black Rat) go on the run. In the press notes Kelley says, “The play moves like a runaway train” — and indeed, the harbinging sound we hear is of a locomotive clattering through a gray, indistinct urban landscape. It’s the first of designer Jeff Gardner’s many stunning aural effects — one element of this technically tour-de-force production that includes Andrew Schmedake’s judicious lighting and Adam R. Macias’ video design, which conjures the falling snow and grim winter darkness through which the increasingly possessed Bigger must flee.
The uniformly fine ensemble includes Victoria Platt as Bigger’s mom, a woman who has preserved her dignity despite the squalor and adversity that surround her; Brandon Rachal as his brother Buddy, the target of Bigger’s fits of rage; and Ned Mochel as a private investigator standing in for every lethal bigot who would deny Bigger his humanity. Arthur’s sly, slithery Rat is excellent.
Chaffin's muscular performance serves as the drama’s vital linchpin, but his encapsulation of the character’s smoldering anger pulsates too much like a banging drum. It’s an interpretative choice (perhaps directorial), probably made because his role is to represent Bigger as others see him, but I do think filtering in signs of a softer, more vulnerable persona would enhance the tragedy.
GO! Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale; (818) 506-1983, antaeus.org. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Mon., 8 p.m., April 30, May 7, 14 & 21 only; through June 6.