Two classic coming-of-age novels, “The Chosen” by Chaim Potok and “Native Son” by Richard Wright, are currently receiving the stage treatment at two New Haven venues, the Long Wharf and Yale Repertory Theatres. The approaches each playwright took in these adaptations could not be more different from each other. Long Wharf has the more conventional staging with “The Chosen” while Yale, as usual, is wildly theatrical in its concept for “Native Son”.
Following their bravura staging of Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” last month, Yale continues its adventurous approach to the classics with this current production. Brilliantly directed by Seret Scott, this is a fever dream of an adaptation (by Nambi E. Kelley) that follows African-American Bigger Thomas (Jerod Haynes, a revelation) and his journey through white America. As the chauffeur to wealthy employees, Bigger becomes part of a tragedy that involves their daughter, Mary (Louisa Jacobson).
Over the next 90 riveting minutes, Wright’s novel is stripped down to its essence covering two days in December 1939 as it follows Bigger’s tragic collision up against white privilege. Wright explained in his timeless novel that Bigger is a “native son”, a product of American culture and the violence and racism that suffuse it. Ms. Kelley’s fine adaptation, miles from the original script written by Wright and Paul Green for the Broadway stage in 1941, also makes that clear.
Haynes, who recently originated the role of Bigger in the world premiere of the drama at the Court Theatre in Chicago, is a spellbinding presence on stage. Resembling a feral cat going in all directions his downward spiral is fascinating to watch. Matching him move by move is Jason Bowen’s “Black Rat”, Bigger’s alter ego who serves as a perverse subconscious to the troubled anti-hero. The entire supporting cast, including Jacobson’s ill-fated Mary and Rosalyn Coleman as Bigger’s distraught mother, work effectively as a vibrant ensemble.
The brick and steel backdrop of “Native Son” has been designed to striking effect by scenic designer Ryan Emens with dramatic lighting by Stephen Strawbridge. Frederick Kennedy’s mournful, bluesy sound design sets the perfect tone for this expressionistic take on one of the most influential studies of African-American life ever written. Richard Wright would approve.
“Native Son” continues at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through December 17. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.432.1234 or visit: www.yalerep.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.