Fresno State’s University Theatre premiered “Native Son” last Friday in the Dennis & Cheryl Woods Theatre to a full audience eager to get immersed in Chicago’s cold winter of 1939.
The play is an adaptation of the novel by African-American author Richard Wright, published in 1940. Audiences delve into the mind of Bigger, a 20-year-old African-American man, and follow him and the decisions he makes after he lands a job with a wealthy family.
Adapted by actor/playwright Nambi E. Kelley, the play takes a different approach to the sequence of the story. While it does focus on two days in Bigger’s life, it does so in a nonlinear order, unlike the novel which is chronological. This technique is used to draw parallels between events that occur throughout the play.
The interchanging scenes move quickly, not giving the viewer time for resolution of what just occurred. It is disorienting, but purposefully so. Life itself is disorienting, and that is especially the case for a young, poor, African-American man being forced to deal with the multiple pressures surrounding him in the 1930s.
In an interview with the Marin Theatre Company, Kelley described the different approach she took in this adaptation and said that “Richard Wright wanted people to say, ‘Look at this monster, you created him.’ My task was to get inside [Bigger]. He is not a monster, he is a man.”
Tension regarding race, and specifically the dehumanization of Bigger, is one of the key themes of the work. Josh Slack and Jalen Stewart, in the roles of Bigger and The Black Rat (Bigger’s inner thoughts), work together brilliantly to give nuance to Bigger’s actions and encourage the audience to empathize with the character.
This production of Kelley’s adaptation comes at a time of racial tension in the U.S. Parallels can be drawn between the portrayal of Bigger trying to navigate the cycle of poverty and violence that he has been brought up in. That issue continues to this day for many young, black Americans.
The same parallels can be made for characters like Mary and Mrs. Dalton, played by Teya Juarez and Emily Kearn respectively, and non-black Americans who seem to be well-meaning but only torment Bigger even more due to their own ignorance.
While the storyline encourages audiences to ponder the many topics featured in the play, one issue is its length.
At times, scenes feel dragged out, especially at the end. The production ended up running for half an hour longer than expected, but that doesn’t detract from the story.
This is a challenging work, but it is a necessary work. The issue of racism is still present in the U.S. and hopefully theater productions like this will bring change.
“Native Son” is showing Oct. 31 to Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 29 at 2 p.m., at the Dennis & Cheryl Woods Theatre. Tickets can be purchased by going to fresnostate.edu/theatrearts or by contacting the box office at 559-278-2216.