Beauty, one could argue, isn’t always very pretty.
Especially in the case of great literature.
Richard Wright’s 1940 masterpiece Native Son—considered one of the most important and powerful American novels ever published— is one great example.
A bestseller upon publication, the novel has been alternately praised and condemned over the years since, often drawing kudos and criticism for the very same things—mainly, the brutal honesty, stark realism, and shocking violence of Wright’s supremely crafted work, a stark depiction of life as a poor, under-educated black man in America in the early 1940s.
And yet, as written from within the conflicted mind of one such man, it’s also a beautiful piece of writing, insightful and raw and full of gorgeously well-written passages.
Which brings us to ‘Native Son,’ the play.
Powered by a poetic, elegant script by Nambi E. Kelley, Marin Theatre Company, in Mill Valley, has finally brought Wright’s explosive novel to the stage. Under the steady guidance of director Seret Scott, an extraordinary cast gives perfectly tuned performances, resulting in a remarkable theatrical experience that is at once astonishing, beautiful, visceral, vibrant and, because of the reality it describes, often inescapably ugly.
Kelley, succeeding where countless adapters have fallen short, strips Wright’s epic-length novel to its bones, dressing it back up again with brilliant theatrical ideas, enhancing, rather than diminishing the power of Wright’s ingeniously built, emotionally rich ethical puzzle box of a story.
The conflicted protagonist is Bigger Thomas — played superbly by Jerod Haynes. Bigger is barely scraping by, living in a rat-infested Chicago slum with his mother (C. Kelley Wright), sister Vera (Ryan Nicole Austin) and borderline criminal brother Buddy (Dane Troy). Bigger, for understandable reasons, is a combustible blend of anger, hopelessness and fear. He dreams of flying airplanes, but knows the system will never give him the opportunity.
Bigger’s violent internal struggles are brilliantly illustrated through his conversations with The Black Rat (played by William Hartfield), the playwright’s nattily dressed depiction of Bigger’s conflicted inner battles. The Rat represents Bigger’s claim that the way society sees him is often in opposition to how he sees himself.
Which one is which is never made clear, adding extra meat to chew on in already chewy storyline.
For Bigger, even the possibility of a decent job, chauffeuring for a wealthy, liberal white woman (Courtney Walsh), is rife with danger. Her daughter Mary (Rosie Hallett) and Mary’s communist boyfriend Jan (Adam Magill) attempt to show Bigger how open-minded they are, but are cluelessly indifferent as to how their public shows of “equality” and familiarity with Bigger actually put him in danger.
When disaster strikes early on, Bigger ends up on the run, his clumsy act of accidental violence leading quickly to another, less defensible one.
As the story plummets ahead with ferocious speed—told in a single, 90-minute act—Bigger literally steps back and forth from his present to his past, vivid flashbacks underscoring his rising fear and fury with heartbreaking power.
The story may be set in the 1940s, but that so little has changed since then is abundantly clear. That — along with the graceful energy of his storytelling — is why Wright’s brutal masterpiece continues to have such resonance after more than 75 years, and why Marin Theatre Company’s gorgeously ugly adaptation is the first must see of 2017.
‘Native Son’ runs Tuesday–Sunday through February 12 at Marin Theatre Company. www.marintheatre.org