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Native Son ~ Mosaic Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 31, 2019 

Written in the early 1940’s, Richard Wright’s novel became a play only a year after its literary success.  Native Son, is grim reminder of a nation at a crossroads during the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigations and the communist scare.  Its theme of a country in conflict shares equal space with the issues of race in America.  It reminds us how generations of poverty and the lack of education and decent employment can lead young men into crime.  It introduces us to the central character, Bigger, a young man with a flimsy conscience, who destroy both himself and those around him when both his love life and employment crumble overnight.

Clayton Pelham and Vaughn Ryan Midder ~ PHOTOGRAPHY BY STAN BAROUH

W. E. B. Du Bois defines it as “[A] peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Fine words, but is Bigger really a good-guy-with-a-soul whose sociological condition takes him on a murderous path? That’s not really the whole of it.  Wright would have us accept that anyone with a life fraught with poverty and racism cannot overcome their condition.  We know that is not true and yet this play is based on a two-time murderer and man-without-a-soul.  It is intriguing to consider how Bigger’s condition could affect his choices, even though it’s not necessarily so that one’s lack of opportunity follows their poor choices.  Remember.

Clayton Pelham, Jr. and Madeline Joey Rose ~ PHOTOGRAPHY BY STAN BAROUH

Much has changed since this was penned nearly 80 years ago during the days of Malcolm X’s brand of Black Nationalism.  Though we’ve had an African American President, dozens of African Americans in Congress and several in the Senate, a culture of racism exists worldwide.  We still jail African Americans in far greater proportion to whites, and underserved neighborhoods still suffer disadvantages both in education and opportunity.  So, is this drama still relevant? It certainly is a grim reminder that some things do not change.

Nevertheless, I found it hard to sympathize with a character who, notwithstanding the obstacles in his life, violently murders two people he professes to care about and threatens to kill another, Buddy, who is his closest friend.  In any case, it affords us the opportunity to see how situations can overtake one’s judgement and to remind us that the treatment of people of color by prosecutors and police remains an ever-constant fear.

Native Son Cast ~ PHOTOGRAPHY BY STAN BAROUH

Playwright Nambi E. Kelley’s adaption along with Psalmayene 24’s direction plays out in a sort of Greek chorus of characters who remain on stage, sometimes changing roles and swirling around Bigger like limpet mines on a drowning man.  Whether young Mary and Mary’s mother, the well-heeled Mrs. Dalton who proudly donates to the NAACP, and Mary’s communist boyfriend, Jan, sympathize with the plight of the Black man, or not, the conflict still exists as to how to prove it without being patronizing.  P. S. They appear to try.  She hires Bigger as her chauffeur though he has a record as a thief, but the gap is too great to bridge.

Clayton Pelham, Jr., Vaughn Ryan Midder, and Tendo Nsubuguga ~ PHOTOGRAPHY BY STAN BAROUH

Kelley invents The Black Rat – an onstage character who follows Bigger around like a shadow, sometimes whispering better options to counter his violent temper, other times urging him to be more manly.  It’s unsettling to witness how easily a man can ignore his better self and choose a more destructive path.  As The Rat explains, referring to how blacks can respond differently, “We all got two minds.  How we see them seeing us, and how we see ourselves.”

Well-acted all around by Clayton Pelham, Jr. as Bigger; Vaughan Ryan Midder as Black Rat; Madeline Joey Rose as Mary; Melissa Flaim as Mrs. Dalton; Lolita Marie as Bigger’s mother, Hannah; Renee Elizabeth Wilson as Vera and Bessie; Tendo Nsubuga as Bigger’s young friend, Buddy; Drew Kopas as Jan; and Stephen F. Schmidt as Detective Britten.

With violence and adult themes. 

Sets by Ethan Sinnott, Lighting by William K. D’Eugenio, Costumes by Katie Touart, and Projections by Dylan Uremovich.

Native Son will run in repertory with Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son starring Jeremy Keith Hunter as James Baldwin and James J. Johnson as Richard Wright.  It opens April 7th and runs through April 27th.

Through April 28th at the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets info on post show discussions, special rates and discounts visit www.MosaicTheater.org or call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2.  Valet parking at 1360 H Street, NE.

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