Taking one of the most explosive and humane novels about the African-American experience and turning it into an exercise in conceptual theater is the fate of “Native Son” at Yale Rep. Adapting Richard Wright’s famous novel, Nambi B. Kelley has rearranged its linear, naturalistic format into a would-be expressionistic style, complete with overlapping dialogue. Although the idea of not being slavish to the novel is commendable, this adaptation, for all its efforts, fails to engage with a character who becomes aware of his predestined fate.
The tragedy unfolds on Ryan Emens’ stark turntable set, backgrounded by fire escapes that go nowhere for these trapped characters. Stephen Strawbridge’s moody lighting, Katie Touart’s class-conscious costumes and Frederick Kennedy’s pinpoint sounds and jazz-infused music reinforce the doom-and-gloom atmosphere.
As befits the concept, the evening starts with an image of a naked-to-the waist Bigger Thomas, a reference to how slaves were sold at auctions. Hovering nearby is his alter ego, The Black Rat, representing Bigger’s inner conflicts between who he is and how he’s perceived.
Since this is stream-of consciousness, events are not chronological but mixed up, alluded to, repeated, given snippets of attention before being fleshed out. Throughout, we are in Bigger’s mind, when, as the program notes, “he runs from his crime, remembers, imagines, two cold and snowy winter days in December 1939 and beyond.” The audience is meant to feel what Bigger feels, from the inside. We are chased; we live in squalor; we are the product of our environment; we are oppressed. If the audience identifies with Bigger’s becoming haunted and hunted, then, perhaps, we can, if not excuse but at least understand him.
Bigger, living with his family in a Chicago slum (the city’s so-called “Black Belt”), is employed as a chauffeur to a wealthy white family. One night, after driving the flirtatious, spoiled, drunken family daughter, Mary, home from a lovers’ tryst, Bigger has to help her up the stairs. Putting her on her bed, aroused, he hears her blind mother call out. In a panic (remembering that he’s black, the daughter’s white), he puts a pillow over Mary’s face to muffle sounds. Inadvertently, he smothers her.
Thus begins Bigger’s descent into damnation and hell. With The Black Rat giving him options, he tries, at first, to put the blame on the daughter’s Communist boyfriend, Jan. (Communism being, at that time, almost as feared as Blacks.)
The playwright’s noirish approach doesn’t allow for Bigger final understanding of himself as a tragic figure. Here, Bigger is an outer object, not inner subject, someone who never finds a connection to or affinity with mankind as a whole. His supposed revelatory speech towards the end is filled with self-justification and doesn’t cut it as an awareness of his fate.
Seret Scott’s direction is vivid, keeping the action fluid. Jerod Haynes, who also played Bigger in previous productions of “Native Son,” is electrifying as the fretful anti-hero, with Jason Bowen a sultry Black Rat and Rosalyn Coleman a piteous, anguished Hannah, Bigger’s mom. Louisa Jacobson is a seductive Mary, Carmen Roman an understanding but complicit Mrs. Alton, her mother. Jessica Frances Dukes is a fiery Bessie, Bigger’s girlfriend, while Jasai Chas-Owens is a sympathetic Buddy, Bigger’s brother. Michael Pemberton is a tough Britten, Bigger’s nemesis.
As Jan, Mary’s boyfriend, Joby Earle is subtle in his confusion, brittle in his denials, enamored of his beliefs. As Earle plays the character, Jan is less a construct, more a troubled human being. Of all, he seems closest to Wright’s tale of people caught in a whirlwind they can neither comprehend nor escape.