That’s the best way to describe Bigger Thomas’s life in 1939 Chicago. He is a black man trapped in a racist society, haunted by a voice that suggests that his life, perhaps, is forfeit. “Grim” also captures the tone and feeling of “Native Son,” an adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel by Nambi E. Kelley that’s currently running at Yale Repertory Theatre that details Bigger’s descent into a hell partially of his own making. The tone of the production is reinforced by the skeletal evocation of an urban tenement by scenic designer Ryan Emens and the minimalistic, often stark lighting design compliments of Stephen Strawbridge.
As directed by Seret Scott, the play is an almost unrelenting analysis of the effects of racism on the psyche and soul of a human being, how prejudice defines and confines him and how it drives him to do deeds he would not otherwise contemplate.
Jerod Haynes, as Bigger, is a commanding presence on the stage. He exudes a pent violence and frustration that is compelling, a frustration exacerbated by The Black Rat (Jason Bowen), a haunting voice Bigger hears that comments on his life and questions Bigger’s attempt to find his place in a world as a man and as a human being.
In this surreal memory play, Bigger’s downfall begins with his accepting a job as a chauffeur for the Daltons, an upper-class white family. Mrs. Dalton (Carmen Roman), who is blind, is gently patronizing, while the Dalton daughter, Mary (Louisa Jacobson), a “very modern” young woman, feigns an equality with Bigger that makes the black man uneasy. This unease is enhanced by Mary’s boyfriend, Jan (Joby Earle), a pseudo-Communist who proclaims his feelings of brotherhood with the confused Bigger.
After a night on the town, with Bigger chauffeuring Mary and Jan, Bigger has to deal with an exceedingly inebriated Mary, and it’s here that the play becomes a bit problematic. Bigger carries Mary up to her room only to have Mrs. Dalton appear. Bigger, worried that a black man will be found in a white woman’s bedroom, puts a pillow over Mary’s face. Remember, Mrs. Dalton is blind – she only smells alcohol and chastises her daughter, who is being unintentionally suffocated by Bigger. Mrs. Dalton leaves…and Mary is dead.
Yes, Bigger didn’t intend to kill Mary. Yes, racism, to a certain extent, is involved in Bigger’s actions. Yet there’s the matter of justification. This matter of justification – and guilt – is enhanced when Bigger kills again, this time silencing his girlfriend, Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes), lest she turn Bigger into the police. It’s difficult at this point to sympathize with Bigger’s plight – the first murder was an accident, the second is a self-serving attempt to avoid arrest.
What’s missing in Kelley’s adaptation is a major character in Wright’s novel: Boris Max, a left-leaning lawyer who defends Bigger (there is no trial in the play). It is Max’s defense of Bigger that presents the social and psychological underpinnings of Bigger’s actions. Without Max, the play’s audience is left to come to its own conclusions, and these conclusions may not be what Wright intended. Thus, the moral and social issues Wright attempted to deal with become a bit blurred, and it’s easy to simply condemn Bigger as a murderer rather than a victim of a twisted society. In this production, it’s pretty clear who the victims are.
“Native Son” is an engrossing, stylized theatrical experience that, perhaps, may leave audience members with more questions than answers. Is prejudice and racism sufficient justification for Bigger’s actions? It would be an interesting exercise to poll the audience as a jury after the curtain: is Bigger guilty or innocent?
“Native Son” runs through December 16. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org