Chicago Theatre Review
Court Theatre’s “Native Son” a Searing, Charged Experience
Native Son – Court Theatre
Unflinching in its honesty and searing in its passion, Court Theatre’s world premiere staging of Richard Wright’s Native Son is not only a Grade-A example of literary adaptation, but also a play that truly speaks to our times and the ever-troubled American spirit that defines them.
Native Son was one of the most significant novels of the 20th century, and its reputation is such that its plot is nearly commonplace – Bigger Thomas, a frustrated, irascible black man living on Chicago’s South Side, accidentally murders the wealthy daughter of a rich, white businessman, and afterwards embarks on a true odyssey through America’s racial landscape, one of gross injustice, blatant prejudice, an expected – even fateful – conclusions.
The power of Native Son‘s text, clearly, still resonates today, but it is not a novel that lends itself easily to a stage adaptation, and enormous kudos must go to playwright Nambi E. Kelley for not only retaining the novel’s central themes and developments, but in also having the audacity to tweak the novel’s structure, eliminate unnecessary sequences and characters (for all its obvious strengths, Native Son is overlong by a good 100 pages), and bring to action much of the play’s internal structure; in short, Kelley takes a expansive novel high on exposition and low on action and, though non-linear storytelling and structures owing to classic Greek tragedy, creates a 90-minute play that amounts to a lyrical sock in the jaw.
There are two other aspects of Court Theatre’s production that are key – its staging/lighting and its superlative cast under the direction of Seret Scott. Court Theatre has always been among the most technically virtuosic companies in Chicago’s ripe theatrical landscape, but “Native Son” may very well be their most impressive achievement yet. Using a barebones staging apparatus of wooden frames and stairways, scenic artist Regina Garcia creates a world in which there is nowhere to hide, nowhere for Bigger to escape the fate that awaits him; and under Marc Stubblefields delicate, chiaroscuro lighting, the proceedings could not be more haunting and foreboding.
And finally, there is the show’s casting, which bring’s together some of the city’s most talented performers. As Bigger, Jerod Haynes continues a winning streak of leading roles that is putting him on the fast track to the upper echelon of Chicago acting. From TimeLine’s superb “A Raisin in the Sun” to Court’s own production of “Three Guitars,” Haynes continues to prove himself an actor of immense bravery and instinct, and in his role as Bigger, Haynes has his best showcase yet. Perfectly complementing him is the profound Eric Lynch who, as “The Black Rat,” acts as the personification of Bigger’s conscience and superego, vocalizing Bigger’s thoughts and second-guessing his actions; Tosin Morohunfola, who was so excellent in Victory Gardens’ “The Gospel of Lovingkindness;” and Shanésia Davis, who is pure regret and sadness as Bigger’s mother.
We live in a time of supposed racial progress, a era where segregated water fountains, lynchings, and voting violations are a thing of past…yet where housing segregation, shocking income disparity, and racially charged killings are still commonplace to a depressing degree. “Native Son” is a bold challenge to those societal norms, and Court Theatre is to be commended for confronting such controversial material in such an honest, unapologetic manner.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented Sept. 11 – Oct. 19 at Court Theatre, 5535 S Ellis Ave, Chicago, IL 60637
Tickets are available by calling 773-753-4472 or by visiting www.courttheatre.org
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.