Entertainment » Theatre

Native Son

by Brooke Pierce
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Aug 12, 2019
Galen Ryan Kane as Bigger Thomas in "Native Son," at the Duke on 42nd Street through August 24. (© T. Charles Erickson)
Galen Ryan Kane as Bigger Thomas in "Native Son," at the Duke on 42nd Street through August 24. (© T. Charles Erickson)  

Stories about how systemic racism destroys lives often focus on promising, innocent young people who you can't help but to see as victims of an unjust system. But "Native Son," based on the 1939 novel by Richard Wright and adapted by playwright Nambi E. Kelley, tells a tougher tale, one in which the protagonist is deeply flawed. In some ways, this better makes the point of the destructive power of growing up in a racist society, but, as evidenced in The Acting Company's current production, it can also be challenging for an audience that yearns to sympathize with the protagonist.

"Native Son" takes us into the mind and life of Bigger Thomas, a young black man living in 1930s Chicago. At the very beginning of Kelley's adaptation, Bigger has an encounter with a heavily intoxicated white woman who is coming on to him, which ends in him unintentionally killing her. Terrified, he goes on to make a continuing series of dreadful choices in his effort to get away with the crime.

The storytelling is fragmented, hopping back and forth in time, to show us the events that led up to the murder, the aftermath, and also some memories of crucial moments in Bigger's younger years. We learn that Bigger's whole life has been beset by hardship — poor living conditions, his family kicked out of their home — and that he has been a troubled youth full of anger for some time.

Under Seret Scott's frenetic direction, where scenes melt into each other, the production captures a man unraveling. We hear Bigger's tortured thoughts and watch his desperate actions, sometimes in horror, over a tense 90 minutes. To be honest, it is hard spending that much time with so many unlikable characters, which include the damaged Bigger himself, his alcoholic girlfriend whose trust he betrays, and a spoiled white heiress and her communist boyfriend who consider themselves allies to black people (and demonstrate how incredibly dangerous clueless white liberals can be).

The discomfort that the production generates helps us feel the psychological pain that Bigger experiences in a society that constantly limits him and terrorizes him. At the very beginning, he tells us that when others see you as nothing but a black rat, you eventually can't help but to see yourself that way, and so his descent into increasingly appalling behavior seems to naturally follow.

Galen Ryan Kane offers a powerful performance in the demanding role of Bigger Thomas. Even as we cringe at Bigger's foolishness, hotheadedness, and callousness, Kane helps us to see the decent core of the character and dare to hope for some kind of redemption.

While The Acting Company's production of "Native Son" is an effective telling of this classic novel, it is also often hard to watch. There are many spots of dark humor, but they seem to drown in the tense atmosphere. The adaptation and production may have benefitted by offering a few breaks from the frantic pace to make a difficult story easier to digest, but there is no denying that this "Native Son" is potent and thought-provoking.

"Native Son" runs through August 24 at The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd St. in New York City. For information or tickets, call 646-223-3010 or visit https://tickets.dukeon42.org/single/EventListing.aspx

Brooke Pierce is a freelance writer and playwright in New York City. Her plays have received staged readings at the American Theatre of Actors, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Stage One Theater. Brooke is a member of the Drama Desk and the Dramatists Guild.


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