Page to Stage, 'Native Son' Loses Nuance

By Michael J. Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 30, 2009

The American Century Theater's adaptation of "Native Son," Richard Wright's 1940 novel, demonstrates the power and the limitations of translating books to the stage.

The company deserves credit for giving audiences a rare look at an adaptation created for Orson Welles to direct with his famed Mercury Theatre in 1941. Tautly directed here by Bob Bartlett, and with a large and talented cast, the drama is intense and absorbing.

But the work does not fully explore the depths of the original material, even though Wright worked on the script with Welles's partner, John Houseman. And that, more than fears of controversy or audiences having difficulty with the subject matter, might be what has kept the play consigned mostly to history.

Wright's book was a sensation, simultaneously termed a literary milestone and a divisive exploitation of the country's racial wounds. Wright's creation, Bigger Thomas, is an embittered young black man in Chicago, a small-time crook. Bigger seethes with fury toward the white world and is on a path to self-destruction. But an unexpected job opportunity, to chauffeur a wealthy white slumlord, seems to offer him a chance at a better life, even if it consigns him to servile assistance to people who exploit him. Bigger hardly begins his new life before a sudden death leads to tragedy. As one of his buddies says, "Takes more than a job to cure what ails him."

After enjoying the performance, I took the dusty novel down from a shelf and read much of it again. Doing so reinforced my feeling that the stage version does not adequately capture Bigger's psychological volatility, and therefore alters the way audiences view him. Of course, it is impossible in a play to take audiences fully inside the mind of a character so complex. Much of the book is seen through Bigger's eyes; we travel with him through pathologies, fantasies and his ever-evolving views about what is happening to him. The play would need to become a monologue to accomplish that.

The weight of this production rests on Ja-Ben A. Early, who plays Bigger. Early's work is powerful and nuanced enough to make audiences feel more empathy for the character when he is being a thug than when he demeans himself in the presence of powerful white people. The stage version glides past some of the darkness in Bigger's heart, but Early puts as much flesh as he can on the outline provided by the script, and he commands attention. He seems to inhabit two physical bodies, one full of swagger when he is with family members and friends, and a less vital one when he is in the company of whites.

Many of the other characters portrayed by the 20 cast members are stereotypical. That's especially true for the women, who seem to loosely fall into whore or saint categories. But Bartlett has the actors give each role enough detail to enhance the gritty and realistic nature of the material. For example, Farah Lawal brings unexpected tenderness and devotion to Bigger's lover, Clara. Mick Tinder keeps us guessing about his character, Henry Dalton, who is Bigger's employer. We're never quite sure whether Dalton, a slumlord who also financially supports efforts to aid Chicago's black population, is a scheming opportunist or a man struggling with his conscience. The performances keep audiences fully engaged.

With much of Bigger's underlying psychosis not revealed, the play is less a sociological study and more a history lesson. Or rather, it would be history, except that some of what we see onstage is still happening in life. There is much to learn from Bigger Thomas's story. With that in mind, the American Century Theater is hosting audience discussions after every performance with cast members and other guests.

"Native Son" continues through May 9, performed by the American Century Theater at Theater II of the Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $28; active military members, students and people 65 and older, $25. For tickets and information, go to or call 703-998-4555.

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