Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
The world of American race relations in the first half of the Twentieth Century sometimes seems comfortingly remote. At times, trying to explain to my daughters the history of segregation, discrimination and racial inequality prior to the Civil Rights movement, they look at me as if I was describing some alien planet, one ruled by the logic of the Mad Hatter, so blatantly preposterous and unjustifiable they simply want to laugh at the silliness.
Making them appreciate the brutal cruelty of that injustice, the depth of the misery caused by the reality of that "system" requires humanizing the issues with some personal story, an individual shaped and twisted and destroyed by it. The story of Bigger Thomas, indelibly told in Richard Wright's great novel, Native Son, does just that. Sadly, it also makes it clear that all of the dynamics of racism, intolerance, rage and moral frailty are vividly contemporary, and the story is sadly relevant for yet another generation.
This dramatization, adapted by Kent Gash, is expertly constructed and strikingly faithful in tone to Wright's novel. Because Mr. Gash also directs this production there is a seamless integration of the theatrical methods of the storytelling with the dramatic flow of the narrative. We move in and out of the immediacy of scenes wherein we feel the flesh and blood of these lives and the omnipotent voice of the storyteller, the novelist who informs us of the greater world in which this all takes place, the broader historical and social setting for the very personal tale of one man's ruin.
A first-rate cast, led by a superior performance from Ato Essandoh as Bigger Thomas, gives a palpable reality to the harsh and inequitable life of African Americans in the Chicago of the 1930's, and the philosophically challenged politics of the privileged classes.
With the accidental death, inadvertent murder, of the young socialite Mary Dalton, played with charm and naive conviction by Carol Roscoe, Bigger finds himself on the run, and running headlong into catastrophe. He will kill again, his friend Bessie (the very appealing Felicia V. Loud), this time far more intentionally, and with his capture be thrust headlong into the unfeeling maw of the judicial system. His trial will explicate many of the issues of poverty and violence, opportunity and inequality, hope and despair that make Bigger's story representative of much more than one man's regrettable crime and punishment.
The magnificent set by Edward E. Haynes Jr. creates an overwhelming environment of dark and degraded corners, with wealth and privilege brightly lit when it is front and center, and the homes of the poor sparse and rather pushed to the side. The cold iron bars of Bigger's final prison are terrible in their literal containment, even more fearsome in their emotional imprisonment. William H. Grant III provides evocative lighting and Frances Kenney creates costumes that are either elegant with wealth or threadbare with deprivation. The onstage musician and composer Chic Street Man accents and underscores the drama with brief sound gestures, moments of melody and strains of the companion music which must always accompany the African-American story.
In addition to Mr. Essandoh, fine performances are given by others in this passionate and committed company. Richard Kline is wonderful as the attorney Max, a character modeled on Clarence Darrow, with his moral probity and social conscience, and also brings his thoroughly professional delivery to the Newsreel Narrator. I was deeply impressed by Bigger's mother, played with utter simplicity and a deeply touching authenticity by Myra Lucretia Taylor. Similarly, Lukas Shadair makes Bigger's younger brother Buddy distinct and sympathetic.
Perhaps it was in that relationship, between a young man who looks to his brother for an image of what manhood means, and who finds only anger and despair and violent defeat, where I most strongly felt the connection between this earlier period and our own. When I saw Bigger's swaggering arrogance, his clutching at a gun as if it were the only tangible means to personal power, his disillusionment with the possibility of honest advancement, his terrible fear and inadequacy disguised as brash confidence, his humiliation by a system that is "just the way things are" it all felt very familiar. I saw young men with hoodies pulled over their heads, flashing gang-signals and blaring "gangsta" rap as they pursue various street crimes to acquire flashy jewelry or pimped-out cars. I don't think that's a racist stereotype, but it certainly is about race, and about race in America, both then and now.
The opening image of this production is Bigger, standing naked upstage with only a few shafts of light modeling his body. It's an almost classical image, like Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, and it says, with elegant concision, that this will be the story of a man, just a man, one man naked in the universe and measured by life and the world and his own conscience. In the final image of the play, after he has been condemned for his crimes, we see him again naked, in that same posture, as he turns and walks forward into the flames of Hell. It is a powerful and deeply moving bookend to this stunning and profoundly important story, and this impressively successful production.