[Note: This review contains plot spoilers.]
I “celebrated” Karl Marx’s 200th birthday by attending a theatrical version of the 1940 novel Native Son by onetime Communist Party USA member Richard Wright. As adapted by playwright/screenwriter Nambi E. Kelley, Antaeus Theatre Company’s SoCal premiere of Nambi’s play is anything but namby-pamby. Indeed, viewer beware: this is a very disturbing, upsetting one-acter and those who prefer for their stage outings to be innocuous entertainments might want to skip this relentlessly hard hitting drama. After all, as dramatist Bertolt Brecht noted in The Threepenny Opera: “Though the rich of this earth find no difficulty in creating misery, they can't bear to see it.”
Actually, they might be among those who most need to sit through this guided tour of hell, wherein 20-year-old African American Bigger Thomas (Jon Chaffin) commits sensational, heinous crimes and becomes the subject of an intense manhunt in Depression-era Chicago. In Kelley’s adaptation the hapless Bigger has what W.E.B. Du Bois (who also, for some reason, eventually joined the CPUSA) called “double-consciousness,” a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” as personified by his other self called the Black Rat (Noel Arthur). (Psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon, that apostle of Third World revolution, advanced a similar notion about the schizophrenia of the colonized in 1952’s Black Skins, White Masks.)
The Black Rat is a construct of Kelley’s and does not exist per se in Wright’s classic - although it does open with Bigger killing a rat (thus foreshadowing the novel’s searing plot). To tell you the truth, if I hadn’t heard cast/crew members discuss this notion of “double-consciousness” on Michael Slate’s KPFK radio show (which features some of L.A.’s best theater coverage), I wouldn’t have understood why two actors were portraying Bigger. Some may see the Black Rat’s invention as insightful, while others may view it as convoluted, although at one point the beleaguered Bigger exclaims: “It’s in my mind!” and this complicated plot device enables us indeed to enter Thomas’ tortured, split psyche.
While Kelley takes it upon herself to add a key character to the story originally conceived and written by the Mississippi-born Wright, the playwright goes on to completely eliminate one of the book’s central protagonists, Boris Max.
While Kelley takes it upon herself to add a key character to the story originally conceived and written by the Mississippi-born Wright (who is not alive and able to defend his literary rights), the playwright goes on to completely eliminate one of the book’s central protagonists, Boris Max. Of course, adapting a work of art from one medium to another, in this case from page to stage, is an act of aesthetic translation. (This isn’t the first theatre version - Orson Welles directed another onstage iteration in the 1940s, and there have been film adaptations, too, including one starring Wright himself.) In doing so here, Kelley converts a 400-ish page novel into a 90-minute one-act play to be performed live. Kelley’s interpretation condenses time and events and focuses on Bigger and the manhunt for the killer.
While the Native Son presented by Antaeus still packs a wallop and is well-acted and directed throughout, retaining much of Wright’s power, the excision of Boris Max is eyebrow-raising. Bigger’s defense attorney is, after his cornered client, arguably Native Son’s most important character. Wright devotes about 17 pages to Max’s summation to the jury, which to a large extent expresses the author’s perspective (see excerpts at the end of this critique).
Unlike the Communist Party organizer Jan (Matthew Grondin), Boris Max is not explicitly identified as a card-carrying, dues-paying member of the CPUSA (which from the 1920s through the 1950s was probably the political organization with a majority of white members that did the most for Black rights in America, such as defending the Scottsboro Boys). Rather, Boris is a lawyer with a Communist-affiliated legal organization called the Labor Defenders. While Max may not follow the orthodox “party line” he is certainly a leftist, albeit, perhaps, an independent one. Boris Max’s name seems to reference Russia and Karl Marx. He is a Jew at the time the Holocaust is unfolding, and therefore, as a fellow member of a hyper-oppressed minority, has insight into what makes Bigger tick and empathizes with him, which partially explains why Boris tries to save Bigger’s life. At one point, Boris laments to Bigger about what he rather poetically describes as “an ocean of hot hate,” engendered by racism.
Editing Boris out of the picture not only drastically alters Wright’s story politically and philosophically, but also plot-wise - Kelley’s play ends with the manhunt for Bigger, and the entire courtroom ordeal Wright depicts in much of Native Son is lost. This could have provided Kelley with what in stagecraft is technically known as “Act II,” but for whatever reason she decided not to present the trial, as well as Boris. Some may call Kelley’s choices (which the deceased Wright presumably had no say in) “poetic license,” while others may harshly call it “character assassination.”
At the performance I attended this troubled some politically conscious ticket buyers familiar with Wright’s novel, such as Narine Petrosyan, Artistic Director of the Heritage Dance & Cultural Center, who was born in what had been part of the former Soviet Union. During and after a talkback with the cast following Saturday’s performance at Antaeus’ lovely new Glendale theatre (which includes a fabulous theatre library!) the Armenian actress/dancer expressed misgivings, stating that Wright’s novel had been more about “class struggle,” while Kelley’s staged rendition of Native Son concentrated more on race to the exclusion of class consciousness.
Having read Wright’s work many moons ago I returned to Native Son and found this passage, from Boris’ courtroom speech, that seemed to support Petrosyan’s assertion, wherein the defense attorney gives voice, presumably to Wright’s own apocalyptic vision of class war:
“Your Honor, is this boy alone in feeling deprived and baffled? Is he an exception? Or are there others? There are others. Your Honor, millions of others, Negro and white, and that is what makes our future seem a looming image of violence. The feeling of resentment and the balked longing for some kind of fulfillment and exultation — in degrees more or less intense and in actions more or less conscious — stalk day by day through this land. The consciousness of Bigger Thomas, and millions of others more or less like him, white and black, according to the weight of the pressure we have put
upon them, forms the quicksand upon which the foundations of our civilization rest. Who knows when some slight shock, disturbing the delicate balance between social order and thirsty aspiration, shall send the skyscrapers in our cities toppling?
“…Your Honor, Bigger Thomas was willing to vote for and follow any man who would have led him out of his morass of pain and hate and fear. If that mob outdoors is afraid of one man, what will it feel if millions rise? How soon will someone speak the word that resentful millions will understand; the word to be, to act, to live? … Who knows when another ‘accident’ involving millions of men will happen, an ‘accident’ that will be the dreadful day of our doom?
“Lodged in the heart of this moment is the question of power which time will unfold!
“Your Honor, another civil war in these states is not impossible; and if the misunderstanding of what this boy’s life means is an indication of how men of wealth and property are misreading the consciousness of the submerged millions today, one may truly come.”
To be fair, other members of Antaeus’ audience seemed enthralled by Kelley’s stage version of Wright’s writing. And the play, which is skillfully directed by Andi Chapman, imaginatively incorporates cinematic techniques such as freeze frames, fast forwards and flashbacks and is enhanced by rear projections. The production is best when flashing back in time to explain Bigger’s motivations and actions, such as the killing of his father during a riot in Mississippi. It is also poignant when depicting Bigger’s dreams, such as becoming an airplane pilot. Caucasian children may have romped as “cowboys and Indians,” but Bigger and his friends “play white,” while they are painfully aware that white dominated society only allows them to pursue their aspirations in fantasies and playing games.
More than three quarters of a century after Wright wrote Native Son (while he was in the Communist Party), in the age of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, it bears putting Bigger Thomas’ crimes against women in a contemporary context. The Caucasian Mary (Ellis Greer) has to die because she is a sexual woman, and since the Biblical Jezebel, the patriarchy has eternally been punishing libidinous women for pursuing pleasure and sexpressing themselves. Especially if they are guilty of being turned on by nonwhite males! To be fair, there is an aspect of the “accidental” in Bigger’s snuffing of Mary out - but as Freud said in The Psychology of Errors “there are no mistakes.” And even if one tries to excuse Bigger’s suffocating of Mary as a “Freudian slip,” Thomas’ coldblooded murder of his girlfriend Bessie (Mildred Marie Langford, who also rather tellingly plays Bigger’s teenaged sister Vera) is inexcusably despicable.
As we try to make a better world there is no place in our ranks for those who’d abuse women. Criminal acts may be explained and understood - but not rationalized or excused. Convicted rapist Eldridge Cleaver is a case in point - the former Black Panther turned out to be a complete sellout. Let’s not make heroes or martyrs out of those who molest, batter and do worse to our sisters.
And now a word about Richard Wright’s title. In light of today’s indigenous struggle, one may argue that Bigger was not a “Native,” but in retrospect the author is not referring to North America per se, but to the society that has been spawned by the class and race struggle on this continent. As Boris Max tells the jury in his attempt in vain to spare Bigger:
“I plead with you to see a mode of life in our midst, a mode of life stunted and distorted, but possessing its own laws and claims, an existence of men growing out of the soil prepared by the collective but blind will of a hundred million people. I beg you to recognize human life draped in a form and guise alien to ours, but springing from a soil
plowed and sown by all our hands. I ask you to recognize the laws and processes flowing from such a condition, understand them, seek to change them. If we do none of these, then we should not pretend horror or surprise when thwarted life expresses itself in fear and hate and crime.
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“…Taken collectively, they are not simply twelve million people; in reality they constitute a separate nation, stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation, devoid of political, social, economic, and property rights.” This is the “land” Bigger Thomas and his kind are “Natives” of.
Theatergoers who agree with German literary critic Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel that “Good drama must be drastic” and with Brecht that “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it” are likely to find this production of Native Son to be thought provoking, puzzling and troubling. Kinda like that insidious evil, racism - which is a pigment of the imagination.
Antaeus Theatre Company’s production of Native Son is being performed Fridays and Saturdays and on May 14, 21 and 31 at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through June 3 at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale, CA 91205. For info and tickets: (818) 506-1983.
Ed Rampell is a Los Angeles-based critic and film historian. The third edition of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book, which he co-authored, is now available.
Excerpts from defense attorney Boris Max’s summation to the jury on behalf of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son:
“…if we can encompass the life of this man and find out what has happened to him, if we can understand how subtly and yet strongly his life and fate are linked to ours — if we can do this, perhaps we shall find the key to our future, that rare vantage point upon which every man and woman in this nation can stand and view how inextricably our hopes and fears of today create the exultation and doom of tomorrow.
“…The complex forces of society have isolated here for us a symbol, a test symbol… The unremitting hate of men has given us a psychological distance that will enable us to see this tiny social symbol in relation to our whole sick social organism.
“…The hunt for Bigger Thomas served as an excuse to terrorize the entire Negro population, to arrest hundreds of Communists, to raid labor union headquarters and workers’ organizations.
“…We must deal here with a dislocation of life involving millions of people, a dislocation so vast as to stagger the imagination; so fraught with tragic consequences as to make us rather not want to look at it or think of it…
“…Our forefathers came to these shores and faced a harsh and wild country… It was the imperial dream of a feudal age that made men enslave others. Exalted by the will to rule, they could not have built nations on so vast a scale had they not shut their eyes to the humanity of other men, men whose lives were necessary for their building. But the invention and widespread use of machines made the further direct enslavement of men economically impossible, and so slavery ended.
“…In their hearts they feel that a wrong has been done and when a Negro commits a crime against them, they fancy they see the ghastly evidence of that wrong. So the men of wealth and property, the victims of attack who are eager to protect their profits, say to their guilty hirelings, ‘Stamp out this ghost!'
“…If only ten or twenty Negroes had been put, into slavery, we could call it injustice, but there were hundreds of thousands of them throughout the country. If this state of affairs had lasted for two or three years, we could say that it was unjust; but it lasted for more than two hundred years. Injustice which lasts for three long centuries and which exists among millions of people over thousands of square miles of territory, is injustice no longer; it is an accomplished fact of
life. Men adjust themselves to their land; they create their own laws of being; their notions of right and wrong.
“…The surest way to make certain that there will be more such murders is to kill this boy. In your rage and guilt, make thousands of other black men and women feel that the barriers are tighter and higher! Kill him and swell the tide of pent-up lava that will some day break loose, not in a single, blundering, accidental, individual crime, but in a wild cataract of emotion that will brook no control.
“…I have only sympathy for those kind-hearted, white-haired parents. But to Mr. Dalton, who is a real estate operator, I say now. ‘You rent houses to Negroes in the Black Belt and you refuse to rent to them elsewhere. You kept Bigger Thomas in that forest You kept the man who murdered your daughter a stranger to her and you kept your daughter a stranger to him.’
“…And to Mrs Dalton, I say. ‘Your philanthropy was as tragically blind as your sightless eyesl’
“And to Mary Dalton, if she can hear me, I say; ‘I stand here today trying to make your death mean something.’
“…we have told them: This is a white man’s country!’ ‘They are yet looking for a land whose tasks can call forth their deepest and best.’
“…Multiply Bigger Thomas twelve million times… and you have the psychology of the Negro people. But once you see them as a whole, once your eyes leave the individual and encompass the mass, a new quality comes into the picture. Taken collectively, they are not simply twelve million people; in reality they constitute a separate nation,
stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation, devoid
of political, social, economic, and property rights.
“…I ask that you spare this boy, send him to prison for life.
“…I say. Your Honor, give this boy his life.
“…Your Honor, I ask in the name of all we are and believe,that you spare this boy’s life! With every atom of my being,I beg this in order that not only may this black boy live,but that we ourselves may not die.”