THE BASICS: NATIVE SON, a play by Nambi E. Kelley, adapted from the novel by Richard Wright, directed by Paulette D. Harris, starring Alphonso Walker Jr., Augustus Donaldson Jr., Debbi Davis, Deborah A. Krygier, Janae’ Leonard and others runs through February 10, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 4 at the Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Avenue (884-2013). www.aaccbuffalo.org Explicit sex, violence, gunshots on stage. Runtime: a little over 90 minutes without intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Bigger Thomas is a very unhappy young black man, ashamed and angry that he can’t help his mother, brother, and sister as they live in rat infested abject poverty in Chicago’s South Side in the 1940s. Hemmed in at every turn by an oppressive white power structure, he reluctantly takes a job as a chauffeur for a rich white family. On his first night on the job, he is instructed to take the daughter to a social engagement. But the rebellious girl has other plans, including meeting up with a friend who is a Communist organizer, and then drinking to excess. By the end of the evening, Bigger has to carry her up to her room, where he panics and sets in motion a series of bad decisions that takes his life, his family’s, and his girlfriend’s futures rapidly downhill.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Right away, it should be noted that this 2014 play, based on the 1940 novel, has been very successful at some major American theaters, just as the novel was very successful immediately upon publication. However, to me, there are three timing issues with this play.
My first issue is the timing of events as portrayed on stage. NATIVE SON playwright Nambi E. Kelley has chosen to tell Richard Wright’s story somewhat out of order so that critical scenes happen long before we see the development of Bigger’s character. He pops his cork and then later we see the pressure building in him. Perhaps this is to create in our minds some of the confusion that confronts Bigger, a 20-year-old who suffers from what today we might call “lack of impulse control.” This is somewhat compensated for by playwright Kelley’s creation of a whole new character, dressed in a black suit, named “The Black Rat,” played by Augustus Donaldson, Jr., who articulates the thoughts that are in Bigger’s head, particularly thoughts about how others, particularly whites, see him.
But I would submit that it is very difficult to change literary forms. The original novel slowly moves you along in standard narrative fashion, filling in necessary details, and developing characters. Trying to compress a novel into a 90-minute play with scenes out of order risks losing depth and nuance.
My second timing issue is that the original novel is over 75 years old. #BlackLivesMatter has certainly “woke” many who were not aware that racism is as powerful a force as ever, but Communism is not a powerful force in America anymore. Those references seemed very dated. Ms. Kelley did edit a lot that’s in the original novel, but I would have left the Communism strand out entirely.
Ayana Mathis is a contemporary African-American novelist embraced by The New York Times, NPR, and Oprah for her novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. In a 2015 article for the Times, she wrote: “with regard to resonance, Native Son is limited by a circumscribed vision that fails to extend much beyond the novel’s moment in 1940.”
She also writes: “Native Son sold an astonishing 215,000 copies within three weeks of publication. Thus, a great many people received a swift and unsparing education in the conditions in which blacks lived in ghettos all over America. Of course, black people already knew about all of that, so it is safe to conclude that Wright’s intended audience was white. And, in any case, I don’t imagine many black people would have embraced such a grotesque portrait of themselves. Bigger Thomas is a rapist and a murderer motivated only by fear, hate and a slew of animal impulses. He is the black ape gone berserk that reigned supreme in the white racial imagination. Other black characters in the novel don’t fare much better — they are petty criminals or mammies or have been so ground under the heel of oppression as to be without agency or even intelligence. Wright’s is a bleak and ungenerous depiction of black life….Certainly the racism that made Bigger Thomas still exists, but, thank God, Bigger Thomas himself does not — he never did.”
I agree with Ms. Mathis, but, on the other hand, if “Native Son is limited by a circumscribed vision that fails to extend much beyond the novel’s moment in 1940” somebody better tell HBO and The Sundance Film Festival. Just last week (1/24/2019) a new film version of Native Son premiered at Sundance hours after HBO films acquired U.S. distribution rights. The screenplay for this latest version is by Pulitzer Prize for Drama winning Suzan-Lori Parks (TOPDOG/UNDERDOG) and it has an all-star cast, including Buffalo’s own Stephen McKinley Henderson. I don’t know anything about the structure of the movie, but the fact that we have two takes on the novel in the past five years, one a play and one a movie, must mean that NATIVE SON CAN extend “beyond the novel’s moment in 1940.”
My third timing issue has to do with dialog in the play which dragged a lot of the time. On numerous occasions my inner voice kept saying “Okay, alright, I get it. Let’s move on.” Alphonso Walker Jr., as Bigger, tried to infuse energy into the evening, but a lot of his energy was manic and not motivating. Janae Leonard as Bigger’s girlfriend Bessie seemed to have the most realistic responses to her surroundings. For a relatively young actress she successfully ran a gamut of emotions including my favorite – totally pissed off at her boyfriend for being a jerk.
Lead image courtesy Paul Robeson Theatre
UP NEXT: The “August Wilson Monologue Competition,” Sunday, February 9, 2019 at noon in Rockwell Hall’s Performing Arts Center on the Buffalo State College Campus. The local winners will then meet in New York City to compete with winners from the total of 12 cities participating, which include Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and NYC. Each student will perform a 1 to 3-minute monologue taken from his or her choice of one of the ten plays in Wilson’s Century Cycle.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!