Describing the internal conflict resulting from being an African American in a white-dominated society, W. E. B. Du Bois famously stated, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” The fragmented black identity is a guiding motif in Nambi Kelley’s theatricalized Native Son, currently running in repertory with Measure for Measure at the Duke on 42nd Street. Adapted from Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, this version eschews the socially realistic approach of previous stage and film treatments and thrusts the audience into a 90-minute expressionistic fever dream.
The play begins with the murder of socialite Mary Dalton (Rebekah Brockman) at the hands of the family chauffeur Bigger Thomas (Galen Ryan Kane). The opening makes clear, however, that Bigger’s destiny had been determined even before the fateful night. Kelley’s principal addition to the material is an alter ego for Bigger, a manifestation of cultural stereotypes in a character named the Black Rat (Jason Bowen). Part narrator and part cynical commentator, the Black Rat points to the character’s apparent lack of free will in a racist society. In an allusion to Wright’s essay about Bigger representing an amalgamation of socially constructed black identities, he explains, “This is how Bigger was born.”
The action primarily takes place in the moments before Bigger’s apprehension by the Chicago police, and the play splices in most of the events of the novel in fast-moving flashbacks. For instance, included is the scene in Bigger’s crowded tenement flat with his mother (Rosalyn Coleman), sister (Katherine Renee Turner), and brother (Lorenzo Jackson) in which Bigger symbolically corners and brutally kills a large black rat. The play also reflects Bigger’s hopeless dreams of becoming an airplane pilot and his aimless life on the Chicago streets. Bigger’s arrogance, as evidenced by loudly pontificating in a pool hall and masturbating in a movie theater (a scene Wright cut from the original publication), contrasts with his subordination and deference to the Daltons and to Mary’s Communist boyfriend Jan (Anthony Bowden).
Notably, the play eliminates the lengthy philosophical third part of the book in which Bigger comes to terms with his fate through the guidance of Max, a Communist lawyer. Yet the larger questions about race remain. Like Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, the play addresses what it means to exist under constant control and surveillance of white people. As Bigger says:
It’s what they do! Choke you off the face of the earth! Don’t even let you feel what you want to feel. After you so hot and hard you only feel what they doing to you. They like God! Kill you before you die. Ain’t a man no more, don’t know what I doin’. I mean, I know what I’m doing. But I can’t help nothin’. Like somebody step in my skin, start acting for me. Like my mind ain’t my mind, like…my body is their body… say… do… be… whatever they say I do… be…
As directed by Seret Scott, this Native Son does not linger on metaphysical quandaries. The action moves at a breathless pace as the play hurtles to its foregone conclusion. The production also benefits from exceptional performances. As Bigger, Kane captures the character’s complex fusion of anger, frustration, and fear. He is in constant motion, running from both authority and himself, and Kane powerfully portrays the feeling of a trapped and hunted animal. He is well matched by Bowen as the Black Rat, a haunting, sinister presence.
Playing Mrs. Dalton, a blind white woman, who represents the harmful effects of white liberal shortsightedness, Laura Gragtmans is effectively unctuous. The other members of the Acting Company ensemble admirably reflect the racial and class divisions in Bigger’s constricting world.
The design elements superbly denote the dark and threatening milieu of the Chicago streets and Bigger’s troubled interior psyche. Neil Patel’s sets, consisting of cement-gray walls and a series of stairways, resembles an urban jungle gym. Alan C. Edwards’s cinematic lighting and Frederick Kennedy’s jarring music and sound potently provide visual and aural accompaniment to the expressionistic landscape. Finally, Sarita Fellows’s costumes simply yet effectually situate the play in pre–World War II America.
Richard Wright’s Native Son first appeared more than two decades before the advent of Civil Rights legislation. Sadly, the current adaptation demonstrates that the work is as relevant today as it was nearly 80 years ago.
The Acting Company production of Native Son plays through Aug. 24 at the Duke on 42nd Street (229 West 42nd St. between 7th and 8th Avenues. The production runs in repertory with Measure for Measure. For tickets, calendar, and more information, call (646) 223 3010 or visit tickets.dukeon42.org/.