Native Son begins at the end of the story—with Bigger (Jon Chaffin), a 20-year-old black man in 1930s Chicago, hunted down by an angry mob, furious about a crime he possibly committed. Based on a book of the same name by Richard Wright, this stage adaptation by Nambi E. Kelley is in its southern California premiere at Antaeus Theatre Company, and tells a suspenseful story wherein a tough upbringing due to a lack of opportunities for African Americans leads Bigger to commit a series of increasingly tragic and violent crimes.
Directed by Andi Chapman, Native Son is told in a nonlinear fashion. The action is primarily focused around the climactic 48-hour period during which everything turns south for Bigger, but there are also flashes to important events from earlier in his life. After growing up in poverty, often living in rat-infested places with his mother, brother, and sister, he gets a rare opportunity to be the chauffeur to a wealthy white family. Mrs. Dalton (Gigi Bermingham) hires Bigger primarily to assist around their home and drive her rebellious daughter, Mary (Ellis Greer) around as needed. Bigger’s first night on the job, Mary convinces him to break her mother’s orders and secretly drive her to rendezvous with boyfriend, Jan (Matthew Grondin), whom her parents have forbidden her from seeing due to his close ties to the Communist party.
As the night progresses, Mary gets extremely drunk, to the point where she is in and out of consciousness and cannot stand unassisted. Bigger helps her back to her bedroom and, in what begins as an attempt to keep her quiet and avoid Mrs. Dalton discovering his presence in her daughter’s bedroom, accidentally smothers Mary to death. From here, Bigger makes a series of increasingly terrible decisions. Covering up his accidental crime leads to multiple other premeditated crimes, and he finds himself on the run, the subject of a city-wide manhunt.
As written, Native Son has some problems that hamper the playwright’s presumed intentions. The point is meant to be that a prejudiced society full of iniquity drove Bigger to wind up where he does, but when so much of the action is focused on a short period of time in which Bigger does multiple unforgivable, unsympathetic things, it is difficult to see him a victim of circumstance. More flashes to earlier in his life, such as a scene in which he is beaten by the police as a teen when he and his family refuse to leave their condemned home, would help build a fully fleshed-out portrait of just how much the odds were always stacked against him. Initially, his decision to cover up Mary’s death is understandable—she is a wealthy white woman, and he is well aware of the snap judgments that would be made were he to be anywhere in proximity to her demise. But as he escalates into elaborate ransom schemes, sloppy attempts to frame Jan for murder, and violence against his girlfriend, Bessie (Mildred Marie Langford), sympathy for his plight plummets.
Throughout the action, Bigger is followed around onstage by a character referred to as The Black Rat (Noel Arthur), meant to be a manifestation of Bigger’s double consciousness, or the way he sees himself through the lens of white racism. In some moments, this duality is used to great effect, while in others it does not seem as well-utilized as it could be. In general, all of the characters aside from Bigger are rather two-dimensional, perhaps a side effect of seeing the story played out through Bigger’s memories and point-of-view.
Many of the shortcomings in the story are made up for in the production, which features ambitious and impressive sound design (Jeff Gardner) and the best use of Antaeus’s new Glendale space yet. Despite knowing roughly how the story ends from the very beginning, the dramatic tension is expertly built, aided greatly by the unconventional structure. Native Son is an important and interesting play that perhaps has larger ideas than it is able to execute well, but nonetheless makes a strong statement that still resonates today.
Native Son runs at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center in Glendale through June 3rd. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here. Unlike most Antaeus productions, Native Son is not double cast.