Just minutes into Yale Repertory Theatre’s kinetic production of Native Son — adapted by Nambi E. Kelley from the novel by Richard Wright — a woman has been smothered in her bed and a man is on the run. And he never stops running.
Native Son tells the story of Bigger (Jerod Haynes), a black man living in Chicago who accepts a job working for a wealthy white family. Part of his job is to chauffer Mary (Louisa Jacobson), the family’s young heiress around town. Mary has fallen in with the Communist Party, and she and young ideologue Jan (Joby Earle) are ready for a night on the town with Bigger as driver. Mary gets really drunk and needs to be taken home. Bigger carries her into her house, up to her bedroom, where she seduces him. The noise wakes up Mary’s mother, Mrs. Dalton (Carmen Roman). In his panic at possibly being discovered—because it’s Chicago in 1939—Bigger tries to stifle Mary’s cries and accidentally kills her. He hides Mary’s body and flees the scene. He knows he’s all but a dead man walking if he’s found out. What is he going to do?
Native Son is at its best in its deft handling of the social forces arrayed against Bigger. As a young black man, Bigger knows he has almost no prospects to improve his life. Being in Chicago is better than being in Mississippi, where he spent his childhood, and where his father was killed in a riot when Bigger was 8 years old. But it’s still grindingly difficult. Racism in Chicago is openly, bluntly accepted. The private detective (Michael Pemberton) investigating Mary’s murder takes it as a matter of fact that Bigger is inferior to him. As the papers get a hold of the story, they fall all too easily into the narrative that Bigger must also be a rapist. Even the Communists who consider themselves Bigger’s allies can’t escape it. In one of the play’s most effective scenes, Mary and Jan attempt — and fail painfully — to show that they understand Bigger’s problems when it’s all too obvious that they can’t. They don’t even know how condescending they are.
In Chicago’s Black Belt, where Bigger lives, his family, friends, and acquaintances simply perceive themselves as already doing the best they can. Hannah (Rosalyn Coleman), Bigger’s mother, is just trying to keep a roof over her family’s head. Bigger’s lover Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes) is barely making ends meet. Bigger’s friend Buddy (Jasai Chase-Owens) likes to talk about grand schemes to get ahead, but he doesn’t quite share Bigger’s deep sense of injustice and ambition — which we get at through a clever device of making Bigger’s internal monologue a dialogue, between him and a character listed as the Black Rat (Jason Bowen) but who, it turns out, has a closer relationship to Bigger than it first appears. As we’re taken — nonlinearly — through the paces of the mixture of desperate decisions and crushing social pressure that closes in on Bigger, the Black Rat is Bigger’s only constant companion, a presence who sometimes commands Bigger and sometimes serves as his foil.
The energy that drives the play is in large part its greatest strength. The tightly wound plot — the play is a fleet 90 minutes with no intermission — unfolds at the pace of a thriller and keeps the actors moving. There is not a moment of slack. For this director Seret Scott and the uniformly excellent ensemble of actors can take a great deal of credit, as they shift seamlessly from scene to scene and ratchet up the emotion seemingly with every line. It’s helped by the smart decision to make scenery changes almost exclusively through lighting (by Stephen Strawbridge) and sound (by Frederick Kennedy) the use of sound in a pool hall to convincingly portray a pool game with only pool cues, no pool table or balls, is particularly delightful).
As the story takes on the panic of a runaway train, we are with Bigger and the Black Rat the entire time, and through the tension between them, we understand why he decides what he decides, even as we know — and, from the beginning, he knows — they will probably doom him. That Bigger is an agent in his own downfall is something that the play doesn’t shy away from. Native Son presents the problem in full, and doesn’t offer easy answers. As such, it’s a great piece of social theater. You’ll want to talk about it afterward.
Yet the play’s speed works a little bit against it, too, and Kelley’s script, as it’s presented, is aware of that. Whether they see him as subhuman or a noble savage, none of the white characters — the people holding all the power — ever see past Bigger’s skin color. They make Bigger into a symbol. Hannah, Bigger’s mother, makes an impassioned plea for everyone to see past that to Bigger’s humanity, as narrative after social narrative is imposed on him. “That is not my son,” she says through tears, and there’s no doubt she’s right. As actors, Haynes and Bowens together make the most of what they have, portraying Bigger’s ambitions and intelligence, his strengths and his flaws. But the play moves so fast that Bigger has no more than a few seconds to make his decisions. Then he must act. As a result, he’s always a man in motion. He’s gone before we really get to know him.
Native Son runs through Dec. 16 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St. Click here for tickets and more information.