Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Bigger's family lives in a cramped, bug and rat infested apartment. Years of poverty, racism, and continual ill treatment from the white people he interacts with have made Bigger's life a living hell. Impoverished and oppressed, he is a victim of his own unfortunate circumstances. The chance of a job working for a wealthy white family seems like a way out of the horrible world that Bigger is in, but an accidental encounter one night with the drunken daughter of his employer sets Bigger's life on an even further downward spiral.
A year after it was published, Paul Green and Richard Wright adapted Wright's novel for the stage in a fairly faithful adaptation. Kelley's 90-minute, one-act, 2014 adaptation streamlines the action and reduces the cast size but still delivers all of the main characters and major plot. She also has found an intriguing way to get inside the head of Bigger. The use of a character called "Black Rat" (named after the large rat that Bigger violently killed in his family's apartment) speaks Bigger's thoughts and feelings, which proves to be a thrilling way to understand and dramatically articulate this frustrated man's inner psyche. Kelley also structures the play with scenes from the present overlapping with ones from the past, often using similar words spoken by characters in both scenes as a way of linking them together. It makes for an intriguing and absorbing theatrical endeavor.
However, there are some issues that create a distance between the audience and the characters. Like Wright's novel, the play is non-apologetic and portrays Bigger with little remorse for his actionsthere is a second act of horrific violence that he inflicts with minimal conflicted feelings. And, while we clearly understand that Wright is saying that Bigger is a product of the world he lives in due to the constant racial oppression he faces, the white family he works for, while slightly condescending, appears to have no racist views or feelings toward him. It is also a very dark playand productionwith no hope, especially since the opening scene shows Bigger captured, so we know there is no way out for him. These elements make the piece not only a little hard to watch but also make Bigger's plight slightly less emotionally resonant since it seems his destiny is already predetermined.
Director Ron May has found an incredibly gifted cast and does exceptionally well with the time shifts and tones in the piece. He expertly uses scenic designer David J. Castellano's multi-layered set to effectively portray the numerous locales in the story, and the combination of Dallas Nichols's deep lighting (the pops of red for the murderous actions are perfect) and Pete Bish's evocative soundscape, which is a non-stop barrage of realistic sounds and moody noirish musical motifs, to keep the tension taut and steep the action with escalation and urgency.
As Bigger, Micah Jondel DeShazer exquisitely captures the fraught, frantic man who fights with the voice in his head. DeShazer never leaves the stage and delivers an agonizing, truthful and poignant portrayal of this man whose destiny seems to have already been chosen for him. As the Black Rat, Alan Johnson uses his deep, strong and direct voice to effectively evoke both the demon and the voice of reason in Bigger's head.
The rest of the cast are all very good. Brittney Watson is both inquisitive and reckless as Mary, the rich white daughter who proudly states that she's always been curious about Negroes, while Tayo Talabi portrays Bigger's girlfriend Bessie as being just as lost as Bigger is. Jamie Bauer and Joseph Kremer deliver fine performances as Mary's concerned parents, and Anne-Lise Koyabe is superb as Bigger's mom. In several smaller parts, Jason M. Hammond, De'Onte Lemons, and Brian Klein all deliver refined characters.
In the decade of both the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's murderer, the rise of the Black Lives Matters movement, continued cell phone videos that capture the horrible treatment African Americans endure at the hands of racist police and others in power, and most importantly the allegedly racist white individuals that seem to have discovered a newfound power with Donald Trump as their president, a play like Native Son is clearly still timely.
Stray Cat Theatre's production of Native Son has an exceptional cast and refined direction that deliver a vivid, truthful, powerful, compelling, incredibly thrilling and disturbing piece of theatre. While Wright has created a character who is a victim of his own world, a man who is defined by the actions the world around him have inflicted upon him, I just wish Bigger's plight were less bleak, with a glimmer of hope or some form of empathy so it could have even more resonance. But maybe it's just as important to realize that Bigger's tragic predicament is not only something that happened 77 years ago but will continue over and over again until we all come together to do something to stop it.
Native Son at the Stray Cat Theatre through March 25th, 2017, with performances at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480 227-1766 or at straycattheatre.org
Adaptation by Nambi E. Kelley