Monday, April 23, 2018

Native Son (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

I have a confession to make.  Never have I read the classic American novel from which Native Son by Nambi E. Kelley was adapted.  To be sure, this qualifies as a failure.  But on the other hand, it does allow me to judge the play more as itself, rather than comparing it to a literary (as opposed to dramatic) experience.

Credit: Geoffrey Wade
So I keep telling myself.

That, honestly, makes up part of my reaction to the play.  Guilt.  Even shame.  Not because I failed to read a specific classic, nor for events portrayed.  After all, those events are not only fictional, they "take place" decades before my birth.  Even as a representative of genuine problems, the play does not condemn me personally.

Does it?

Not directly.  The story follows one Bigger  (Jon Chaffin), a young Negro man in 1930s Chicago hired as a chauffeur for a wealthy family, the Daltons.  In a not-coincidence, the unseen Mr. Dalton is Bigger's family's landlord, one of many responsible for maintaining strict racial segregation.  Yet he gives money to civil rights organizations.

Credit: Geoffrey Wade Photography
His wife, the (again not-coincidentally) blind Mrs. Dalton (Gigi Bermingham) likes Bigger and proudly notes how she supports the NAACP.  Neither cruel nor greedy, she seems nice enough.  Bigger feels absolute terror.  She's white.  That is all that matters, one of the baffling rulers of Chicago he knows from childhood are capricious and in practice violent to his kind.  They will kill him.  Why not?  They killed his father.  Mary Dalton (Ellis Greer), the daughter, does kill him.  Not deliberately.  In fact she thought she was trying to be friends.  But when drunk and insisting he carry her back to her bedroom, Bigger's terror knew no bounds.  Upon hearing Mrs. Dalton, Bigger sought to quiet the drunk girl with a pillow.  He accidentally killed her.  Just as she accidentally killed him, by putting him in that situation.

Credit: Geoffrey Wade Photography
So the play begins.  With that one accidental death, which will absolutely lead to another, deliberate one.  Stuff of tragedy.  But this story peals back the layers, showing us Bigger and his world--his mother (Victoria Platt), sister (Mildred Marie Langford), brother (Brandon Rachel) and most of all his other self, his secret self.  Called The Black Rat (Noel Arthur), he reveals to us some measure of the depths this desperately unfortunate young man contains.  As well dressed and upright as Bigger cringes in his rags, The Black Rat speaks Bigger's thoughts.  He functions as vanity, voice of reason, self hatred, conscience all fused together.  A window into the real human being behind the strutting, terrified mask.

Credit: Geoffrey Wade Photography
Of course Bigger tries to cover up the act.  Of course he bungles it, or proves just a little too unlucky.  Of course the whites begin to hunt him, calling him a rapist and murderer--crimes he at first had not committed at all.  After all, this was just a terrible, stupid accident.  But for people like Bigger, that matters not at all.  He seeks to flee his doom into a blizzard, tries to find friends, panics again and again and eventually even becomes much of what they insist he has always been.

But what might have been just a sordid tragedy becomes more, and that ultimately made me feel the most.  In that snow storm, beset by his own imagined terrors and memories, hunted by the likes of a racist detective named Britten (Ned Mochel) and haunted by (among others) the memory of the strange white boyfriend of his victim, a "communist" (whatever that is) named Jan (Matthew Grondin), Bigger burns through his own mask.

Credit: Geoffrey Wade 
The Black Rat vanishes from stage.  Only Bigger is left, facing his doom with a kind of magnificent courage.  He becomes...bigger.  All his potential, now lost forever, radiates from him even as the hell he has lived finally snuffs it out.

Calling this play a polemic against racism cannot be enough.  It achieves more than that paltry if ethical goal. This play made real and supremely personal the tragedy of a human life, a life mine no less than the writer of the novel, or the play, or the actor who brought him forth.  It is a challenge, felt and tasted not as an idea but a visceral wound.  This.  Should.  Not.  Be.

Now, what do we do with that feeling?  What shall I do with it?  What will you?

 Native Son plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, Mondays at 8pm until June 3, 2018 (with one Thursday night performance  May 31 at 8pm) at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 East Broadway, Glendale CA 91205.

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