Brandon Herman St. Clair Haynes as Bigger Thomas in Nambi E. Kelley’s “Native Son” at PlayMakers Repertory Company. (HuthPhoto)
PlayMakers Repertory Company has opened its new season with a beautiful and thought-provoking production of Nambi E. Kelley’s Native Son, based on the novel by Richard Wright and intricately directed by Colette Robert.
This updated version of the play is still set in 1939, but something about it feels more modern and fresh than Paul Green’s 1941 stage adaptation. In fact, the freshness and relevance of the show is alarming. As viewers watch the tragic tale unfold, all played out atop a stage effectively painted to look like a tattered and torn American flag, the message is clear: too much has stayed the same in our country. The world, at least in terms of how it treats minorities, is not as different from the world of 1939 as it should be.
Kelley’s non-linear script turns a laser focus on Bigger Thomas (Brandon Herman St. Clair Haynes) and the urging, affected voice inside his head, personified by The Black Rat (Brandon J. Pierce). When Bigger accidentally kills a white woman named Mary (Sarah Elizabeth Keyes), his life spirals. Confounded by his lifelong treatment by White people, the ugly things he’s been led to believe about himself, and the sheer turmoil of knowing he’ll never be believed, Bigger makes one bad choice after another. However, the script asks the audience to question whether Bigger is really making these choices. Does he have any choice at all? Or, is he merely a “native son,” a product of a messed-up world and the effect it has had on him?
These questions lead to deeper ones, making for a heavy 90 minutes. Throughout it all, Haynes effectively portrays Bigger and all the parts of him. His representation of the character is flawless and painfully believable. Serving as a counterbalance to Haynes’ serious, brooding representation, Keyes plays her character as flighty and careless, showcasing the great difference in the way these two characters live their lives, in the way they are allowed to live their lives.
Robert’s direction has these main characters and more moving all over the small set. They climb, scramble around, and yet remain trapped, going nowhere, just as the script paints them. Tough to watch but beautifully done and definitely worth some after-viewing thought, PlayMakers’ Native Son is an important and much-needed theatrical piece for modern times.
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