By Charles Brousse
During this era of “Black Lives Matter,” Marin Theatre Company’s (MTC) decision to make Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s controversial 1940 novel Native Son the centerpiece of its 50th Anniversary Season seems entirely logical. In a program note, MTC Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis cites the play’s eloquent plea for social justice and its innovative structure.
But is all of the praise really justified? Let’s take a closer look.
Interviewed by the Chicago Tribune, Wright explained that his inspiration for the novel was a report of the execution of a 20-year-old black man from Louisiana who had been living in the city’s impoverished South Side. His crime was bludgeoning a girlfriend to death with a brick, and he died in the electric chair. Heinous as the crime was, Wright considered him to be the victim of a dysfunctional community that denied him any hope of a better life.
A similar young disaffected black man named Bigger Thomas is Wright’s chosen “native son” protagonist. He lives with his mother Hannah, younger brother Buddy and sister Bessie in a rundown South Side flat. Rejecting Hannah’s repeated injunctions to find a steady job, even if it’s menial, Bigger and his informal gang keep themselves supplied with walk-around money by robbing small neighborhood businesses. One morning, he awakens to find his mother screaming about a huge black rat scampering around the kitchen. Bigger kills it with a frying pan, but later looks in a mirror and concludes that he himself is a dirty, vile “black rat son of a bitch”—an image that will haunt him for the rest of the play. This awakening to the reality of his situation, and a disagreement with the gang’s dangerous decision to rob a white-owned business, induce him to heed Hannah’s advice to accept a position as a driver for Mary Dalton, daughter of a wealthy white real estate developer.
That proves to be a fateful choice. His first day on the job he delivers Mary to a surreptitious tryst at a bar with a young communist organizer named Jan. Ignoring social norms, the couple invite him to drink with them and he reluctantly agrees. Later, he drives the now falling-down-drunk Mary home, and against his better judgment agrees to help her up to her room. One thing leads to another and they are about to have sex when Mrs. Dalton, Mary’s blind mother, approaches to check on her daughter. Panicked that he will be discovered and fired (or worse), Bigger presses a pillow over her head to keep her silent and unintentionally suffocates her.
The remainder of Kelley’s play revolves around this tragic accident. What is to be done with the body? When the authorities start questioning, can he shift suspicion onto Jan, whose communist ties make him an easy target? After telling his girlfriend Vera what happened, how can he be absolutely sure that she won’t inform the police? (Easy. A few solid knocks on the head with a brick while she’s sleeping does it every time.)
So, is this an appropriate exemplar for the thesis that Wright, Kelley, MTC and others who celebrate Bigger Thomas’ story appear to propound, namely, that he, and presumably many like him who are raised in ghettos, are not fully responsible for their actions? It’s a deterministic view that denies free will and moral responsibility.
To bolster our understanding of her anti-hero’s state of mind, Kelly adds a character not in the novel—Black Rat, Bigger’s imaginary alter ego—who shadows his every move, offering counsel. This effectively moves the narrative along, which is always a problem when transferring fiction to the stage, but their relationship is all about evading punishment. There is not even a hint of remorse for his crimes or compassion for his victims.
Before concluding, I should mention that MTC’s entire cast, headed by the remarkable Jerod Haynes in the title role, is of the highest quality, and director Seret Scott keeps the action moving briskly—a bit too briskly for my taste, but that is probably due to the adapter’s decision to encompass an entire novel within a 90-minute, no-intermission running time. Perhaps, if more of Bigger’s relationships could have been fleshed out, he would have emerged as a more sympathetic character. Who knows?
NOW PLAYING: Native Son runs through February 12 at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 415/388-5208; marintheatre.org.