Through February 10|
NATIVE SON Paul Robeson Theatre/African American Cultural Center
People make mistakes.
Sometimes, really big mistakes.
The difference is whether or not that mistake is made in an environment where there is some flexibility and recognition that bad things happen.
Bigger Thomas (Alphonso Walker Jr.) is a poor Black man in Prohibition Chicago when there is no flexibility in a collision with the White power structure.
Thomas lives with his mother Hannah (Debbi Davis) and brother Buddy (Jerai Kahdim) in really terrible housing.
Richard Wright produced his thinly disguised “Native Son” novel about his own life, a story which has been turned into plays several times.
The Paul Robeson Theatre is working now with Nambi E. Kelley’s new script, based on the novel and turned into a 90-minute, one-act play, which never loses the intensity of Thomas’ quest for a better life and then just for life.
Hannah gets Bigger a job working for Dalton family, rich and White and living in a level of comfort Bigger can only dream about.
It’s not his fault that everything falls apart but the clueless, party girl, rich radical Mary Walton (Madeline E. Allard) is the pivot to ruin.
Her parents are tired of her bad behavior and one night, Bigger is supposed to drive her to a university lecture and, instead, she picks up Communist boyfriend Jan Erlone (John Warzel) and they decide to drink and visit a restaurant in Chicago’s Black neighborhood, the South Side.
Mary and Jan don’t understand the racial pressures in their city, one that Bigger understands only too well and fears he will pay the price for their naiveté.
Mary returns home very, very drunk.
Trying to help her, Bigger carries Mary to her bedroom.
She’s drunk and noisy.
When her blind mother, Deborah A. Krygier, appears to find out what’s going on, Bigger puts a pillow over Mary’s face and accidentally suffocates her.
It’s all downhill from there, as the intense private detective Britten (Shawn Patrick Greene) probes what happened as Bigger tries to cover it up and the system comes down on him and on his family.
He tries burning Mary’s body in the Dalton furnace and then he kills his girlfriend Bessie (Janae’ Leonard) and dumps her body.
Bigger is a tortured soul, twisted into extreme anger by everything bad in his life and desperate because he knows there is no forgiveness for his situation, none.
Kelley has created an alternative ego, a conscience in his mind commenting on his situation, The Black Rat (Augustus Donaldson Jr.), enabling his mental processes to be clear in a way most stories can’t.
In the end, there is the ultimate penalty.
Kelley’s script slashes down Wright’s story to this tale of violence, anger, death and retribution, with the surrounding, racist society hinted at, with Walker twisting and turning inside his near-madness, with no way out.
Director Paulette D. Harris is working with Harlan Penn’s very spare set, letting the story move along rapidly without much scene changing to slow down the story.
That keeps the pressure and the sense of the world closing in on Bigger, a world far larger than him, but anxious to make it clear who runs things.
“Native Son” is a story of terror and travails in a really bad time in our society.
It’s not pleasant to watch, although it’s a dramatic look at what can happen to a society, not too distant from our time.
Harris has a strong cast to work with, especially Walker and Donaldson, Allard and Krygier.
“Native Son” is really well done, with the relentless pace keeping the story moving to doom.
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