Richard Wright's Native Son is a Great American Novel: clumsily symbolic, morally earnest, involving the redemption of an oppressed underdog. It is also the cornerstone of modern black literary history. Set towards the end of the Great Depression, the novel follows Bigger Thomas, a young, uneducated urban black living in a world of outrageous injustice. As head runs headlong into the racial boundaries of 1930's America, Bigger begins to express his anger by lashing out with rape and murder.
"The gallows is at the end of the road you traveling, son, and you better not forget it," screams his mother Hannah (played by Jonnie Mae) at the beginning of the Classical Theater of Harlem's new stage adaptation of Native Son. Poverty peels from the walls of the slum apartment in which they live. When we first see Bigger (Ben Rivers), his hands are already bloody from the violent killing of a rat. Siblings Vera and Buddy (Christina Sajous and Diamond Hammond) stand by, looking with hungry and accusing eyes at the only provider the family knows. "You know, if you took that job, we could make this place look real nice, maybe get some curtains," wheedles Hannah Thomas. "Why you always after me?" pleads Bigger.
Novels always make difficult transitions to the stage, but Christopher McElroen (who also directs and produces) has done a fine job of adaptation here. Aided by the ingenious sets of Christopher Thomas, the scenes flow simply and directly; there is an action-driven, theatrical feel to them, and the tension and detail of the novel's narration is nicely communicated. The only set piece that arrests the action is Wright's penultimate courtroom scene, excerpted at length, which makes for better reading than theater.
The ensemble acting is beautiful. Rivers as Bigger has a quality that is brooding without being opaque. But no one character dominates here, not even Bigger, and that's appropriate for a play of ideas. Scenes involving only the black cast members are gripping; there is a distinct change in tone when white actors are present on stage. Whether this is intentional or not, it perfectly mirrors the time period of the play's action.
Best of all, McElroen has preserved the ambiguity of the novel. As much as Bigger is the victim of an unjust society, he is never a hero. At best, he is an anti-hero. The white characters are not so much menacing devils as bumbling clowns; their "concern" comes across as comic, out of touch, too little too late. "You're a man just like I am," gushes the white socialist Ben Wilson (perfectly characterized by Jan Erlone). His witless girlfriend, the sacrificial Mary Dalton (played by an actress named Nicole Dalton), has an interest in "the black issue" that borders on fetish. In the end, Native Son leaves us where we are today: The most complicated issue in American culture is thrust on those least equipped to solve it.
"Forget me," Bigger cries again and again, shackled in prison and waiting for his execution. Richard Wright and the Classical Theater of Harlem make sure that we will not forget anytime soon.