The 1939 novel “Native Son” by Richard Wright (1908-1960) became a controversial literary and financial success after being a Book of the Month Club selection in 1940. It became a Broadway play written by Wright and Paul Green, directed by Orson Welles and starring Canada Lee in 1941.There have been three film versions. Nambi E. Kelly has written a play first staged in Chicago in 2014, and it is her play that The Acting Company is now staging in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.”
The result is a harrowing, well-acted version of Wright’s vision of a young black man raised in the racist environment of 1930s Chicago and stumbling into an initial crime he did not mean to commit and as a result becoming as symbol of an African-American caught up in the evils of society. Liberties have been taken with the novel, most notably in the trial and outcome, here played out in the protagonist’s mind as to what might be coming and ending in a leap to death instead of awaiting execution as in the novel.
In Kelley’s play, Galen Ryan Kane, giving a searing, poignantly desperate performance as Bigger Thomas, who has been living with his mother, sister and brother in a rat-infested apartment in Chicago’s South Side, is accompanied by Jason Bowen playing Black Rat, actually Thomas’s mind in a raspy voice communicating his thoughts.
The writing and staging within a bare-bones set under the direction of Seret Scott is free form, jumping back and forth in time and meshing scenes that blend into one another, thus covering extensive territory in the 90-minute running time without an intermission. It is a tribute to the production that there is consistent plot clarity as the tragic events relentlessly unfold.
Thomas is no angel. His upbringing in the context of the oppression he has faced has led him to plan an intended robbery with a buddy. He has already been in juvenile detention. But what mainly goes wrong stems from his being hired by the wealthy white Dalton family as helper and chauffeur. Mrs. Dalton (Laura Gragtmans) is blind. One night Thomas is assigned to drive her daughter Mary (Rebekah Brockman). She has secretly planned getting together with her communist boyfriend, Jan (Anthony Bowden).
Mary has been flirting provocatively with Thomas, forbidden fruit for a black man, and making him uncomfortable. She and Jan lavish attention on Thomas, drinking together, filling him with communist ideology and trying to convert him. Mary gets drunker and drunker, and by the time Thomas drives her home, he has to carry her inside and up to her bedroom. In her drunken state Mary has become increasingly cozy, and after he places her on the bed he can’t resist kissing her. When he hears her mother coming, he places a pillow over Mary’s face to keep her silent, unintentionally smothering her to death. In the play’s freewheeling structure we get this scene early on, and Thomas’s desperate journey commences.
The play creates tension all the way, fueled by Kane’s excellent acting and a series of events, including disposing of Mary‘s body, Thomas also killing his girlfriend, investigation by a detective, Thomas trying to lay the blame for Mary’s death on the communist Jan, the anguish of Thomas’ mother and Mary’s mother and the ensuing manhunt. The staging has the power to keep one riveted. There is success in capturing Wright’s attempt to show a man whose actions stem from the plight of African-Americans, one of whom is driven into tragic behavior that can be largely blamed on society. At The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street. Phone: 646-223-3010. Reviewed August 6, 2019.