‘Native Son’ Review — Adaptation of Richard Wright Classic Gives Audiences a Peek inside a Psyche

Eric Lynch , Joe Dempsey, Jerod Haynes, James Leaming

Despite predictions of its imminent demise, the novel may be the ultimate survivalist art form, thanks to its unparalleled knack for pulling readers inside the heads of characters. Interior conflict is in the novel’s wheelhouse. On stage, where the emphasis is mostly on conflicts between characters, dramatizing an interior struggle is trickier.


Ensemble in 'Native Son'


The hurdle may be even higher when a play is an adaptation of a novel that has already tunneled with surgical precision into a psyche to reveal all of its messy machinery — as in Richard Wright’s iconic 1940 novel “Native Son.” Generations of readers have absorbed Wright’s blueprint of the brain of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas. What more remains to be expressed? Plenty, in the capable hands of playwright Nambi E. Kelley. Her adaptation of “Native Son,” now in its world premiere at Court Theatre in partnership with American Blues Theater, manages to peel back a few more layers, making Bigger’s story even more accessible.



Tracey N. Bonner, James Leaming, Carmen Roman, Edgar Miguel Sanchez, Shanesia Davis


The success of this production was not guaranteed. I couldn’t help but contrast it to Court Theatre’s 2012 botched adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” which covered some of the same ground — the struggles of African Americans in the 20th century, the allure of the Communist Party to ease those struggles (as well as both authors’ subsequent disenchantment with the CP) — but “Invisible Man” did so with far less grace than “Native Son.” Much credit for the triumph of “Native Son” goes to Kelley for her artful adaptation and to Seret Scott for her self-assured direction.


Jerod Haynes, Eric Lynch


Kelley’s chief conceit splits the main character into two characters, one external, one internal: Bigger (Jerod Haynes, maintaining a controlled simmer, threatening to boil over any minute) and The Black Rat (Eric Lynch as the cool inner voice who can afford to talk with bluster). The device may sound unpromising on paper, but it works wonderfully on stage as these two capable actors, their dialog overlapping in a psychic tug-of-war, form a dysfunctional Greek chorus. The resulting portrait of Bigger’s mind is more complex and multidimensional than an MRI scan.


Nora Fiffer, Jerod Haynes, Jeff Blim, Eric Lynch (back)


One of the revelations of this production is that Bigger’s crisis moves beyond the specificity of a disadvantaged African American male caught in a tangle of tragic events to something universal: to some extent we have all felt trapped; we’ve made the wrong choices before we even realized we had choices to make. “We all got two minds,” is the play’s apt opening line.



Nora Fiffer, Jerod Haynes


Wright’s book is divided into three parts: “Fear,” “Flight” and “Fate.” Alliteration aside, Book One could just as easily been titled “Guilt.” Bigger’s guilt — his feelings toward his family and society — precedes his first crime, the accidental smothering of his wealthy employer’s daughter Mary (Nora Fiffer in a nuanced performance). Kelley places this critical scene near the play’s beginning, afterward traveling backward and forward in time, a decision that helps focus the action in this 90-minute, no-intermission drama.


Tracey N. Bonner, Jerod Haynes, Eric Lynch


All the performers deliver: Jeff Blim, Tracey N. Bonner, Shanésia Davis, Joe Dempsey, James Leaming, Tosin Morohunfola, Carmen Roman and Edgar Miguel Sanchez. Marc Stubblefield’s lighting is deftly choreographed to the action and brings out the best in Regina Garcia’s versatile sepia-toned set. The program reminds us that Wright set his novel on the South Side of Chicago, not far from where the audience is seated.






Native Son


Court Theatre at the University of Chicago, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago; free parking in garage directly north of theater


Extended through Oct. 19, 2014


Tickets: Court Theatre or (773) 753-4472; $35–$65; discounts for seniors, students, U of C faculty/staff




Photos: Michael Brosilow


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