Life & Style
Electrifying Interpretation of Richard Wright’s Native Son at Yale Rep
Jessica Frances Dukes and Jerod Haynes in Native Son by Nambi E. Kelley, adapted from the novel by Richard Wright, directed by Seret Scott. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Louisa Jacobson, Jerod Haynes, Jason Bowen (back), and Joby Earle in Native Son by Nambi E. Kelley, adapted from the novel by Richard Wright, directed by Seret Scott. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Crafted like an exquisite sonnet bound together with repeating lines, but no wasted words, delivered in perfect rhythm by an exceptional cast, Native Son, the 1940 breakout novel by celebrated African American author and poet Richard Wright, has been transformed almost 80 years later by playwright Nambi Kelley and director Seret Scott into a stage work of astonishing power and beauty.
The tautly constructed one-act, 90-minute play begins with the murder of the young, rich, white Mary Dalton (Louisa Jacobsen), by her chauffeur, Bigger (Jerod Haynes), who finds her drunk and carries her to her bedroom where he starts removing his belt, giving into desire, while well aware of the danger. He hears a voice coming up the stairs, Mary’s mother, Mrs. Dalton (Carmen Roman), and, trying to keep Mary quiet with a pillow, ends up suffocating her. He knows he is doomed either way—being found in a white woman’s bedroom is on par with murder, which at least he can try to cover up.
We then shift back and forth in time to learn Bigger’s back story leading up to the chilling event that changes the lives of everyone in his poverty-stricken Southside Chicago community, ending up at his final sentencing to death for his crimes.
Haynes, with the aid of Jason Bowen—who as The Black Rat represents Bigger’s unconscious, expressing his inner thoughts—successfully creates a disturbing portrait of a man we want to hate for his horrific crimes, including his callous disposal of Mary’s body. At the same time, we feel uncomfortable sympathy (and responsibility) for a shameful history of treating black citizens as inferior, dooming Bigger to having no good choices to make and slowly self-destructing.
Jacobson is excellent as Mary, whose far left-leaning politics make one think she will be more sensitive to the struggles of the working class, including her poor black neighbors just a few blocks away, but the condescending and clueless questions she asks of Bigger makes us squirm in our seats.
Joby Earle adeptly portrays Mary’s boyfriend Jan, an idealistic member of the Communist party, whom Bigger tries to frame for the murder, and who at least has the compassion and desire to attempt to understand the vileness of racial oppression.
Roman gives a superb, nuanced interpretation of her character, Mrs. Dalton, whose blindness is a metaphor for racial blindness. She is charming and manipulative, likable and detestable, all at the same time.
Other actors, who beautifully flesh out the story, are Rosalyn Coleman as Bigger’s demanding and disillusioned mother Hannah; Jessica Frances Dukes as Bessie, Bigger’s strong-willed, hard-drinking girlfriend; Jasai Chase-Owens as Buddy, who tries to justify the behavior of the big brother he idealizes; and Michael Pemberton as Britton, the hard-line police investigator—bigoted against both blacks and Communists.
Ryan Emens’s haunting set, a series of multi-level tenement building fire escapes and Stephen Strawbridge’s dusky, moody lighting, enhances the sense of the characters’ entrapment while Frederick Kennedy’s period jazz music score and urban sound effects centers the play in time and place.
All these years after Wright wrote his envelope-pushing novel, strong voices are declaring through technology he could never have imagined that #BlackLivesMatter. Yet there are still far too many Americans refusing to acknowledge and embrace this fact. Audiences can’t possibly leave the theater at the conclusion of this provocative play without feeling deeply moved and troubled–and hopefully motivated to examine their own lives.
Native Son is at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel Street, through Saturday, Dec. 16. Tickets are available online at yalerep.org, by phone at 203-432-1234.
Amy J. Barry has been writing about Connecticut professional theater for more than 25 years. She is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. (ctcritics.org).
Amy J. Barry is the Correspondent for Zip06. Email Amy J. at .