Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Native Son
Yale Repertory Theatre
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Fred's review of The Chosen


Jason Bowen and Jarod Haynes
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Yale Repertory Theatre production of Native Son, written by Nambi E. Kelley, is about as intensely rewarding a theater experience one could imagine. Directed by Seret Scott and adapted from Richard Wright's powerful novel, the show (running 90 minutes without intermission) continues in New Haven through December 16th.

Designer Ryan Emens has created a backdrop set of numerous black fire escape stairways as we are immediately transported to 1939 Chicago. Bigger (Jerod Haynes) is a young black man dealing with life circumstances far less than idyllic and he now works for white people who are quite wealthy. Mary (Louisa Jacobson) is a willowy and fair young woman who has taken to Jan (Joby Earle). Bigger, chauffeuring the woman, hasn't any choice but to carry her, as she is drunk, up to her room. Mary's seductive intent is undeniable. She begins to shriek and Bigger, frightened, places a pillow over her face so she will not be heard. Inadvertently, he kills her. Her mother, Mrs. Dalton (Carmen Roman), is blind but she is now awake. This vitally important opening sequence is an immediate attention-getter.

Haynes has played the role previously and won an award for his performance. Bigger is paralyzed with fear when he recognizes his plight. Chicago, at this time, is not a friendly locale for someone of his color who has committed a crime. He lives in a section called the Black Belt. His mother Hannah (Rosalyn Coleman) does her best to survive. Bigger has a girlfriend named Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes) and their relationship is, to understate, contentious. Kelley's oftentimes short, striking scenes are never wasted.

Pivotal to plot and theme is The Black Rat (Jason Bowen). Within Kelley's hands, the man becomes Bigger's conscience, a haunting figure who bluntly describes to the protagonist just how the world might be seeing him. In Wright's novel, Bigger Thomas smashes to oblivion a menacing black rat. Playwright Kelley creates a Black Rat who is vocal, omnipresent, and opinionated.

Haynes blazes his way through the energy-draining role as Bigger. Bowen, as The Black Rat, will not disappear. The rest of the characters support these two. The play, lyrical even if brutal, hurtles forward. You are there: it is impossible, however unsettling are the goings-on, to turn away.

Kelley has presented Native Son twice previously; the Yale Rep staging is new and her passionate investment in the product is obvious. Director Scott, working with the playwright for the third time on a version of this play, creates compelling movement for the nine member cast.

Frederick Kennedy's original music adds distinctive flavor and dimension to the piece. The dialogue often assaults and this is a necessity. The author's lead character is ensnared by his own violent (even if accidental) act—and also by a socially racist Chicago of that era. His deed is being investigated.

The multitude of scripted scenes fly from one to the next. The actors, perfectly dressed by costumer Katie Touart, never miss a beat, experience each moment as it might be a last one above ground. Bigger is engulfed by the acute tension due to his predicament. At one point, he and The Black Rat literally cut across one another on the fire escape steps, "Can't stay here" soon resounding through the theater.

Richard Wright, in an introduction to his novel, said, "The birth of Bigger Thomas goes back to my childhood, and there was not just one Bigger, but many of them, more than I could count and more than you could suspect." Nambi Kelley, channeling Wright while originating, sculpted a startling play. She has said her task was to "get inside. Bigger is not a monster; he is a man."

Native Son continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, through December 16th, 2017. For tickets, call (203) 432-1234 or visit yalerep.org.


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