When the beleaguered chauffeur Bigger Thomas sets out to extort money from his rich employers, the Black Rat is there, leaning over his shoulder and guiding the composition of the shakedown note. When Bigger’s mother tries to bolster her son’s scant faith by singing a gospel tune, Black Rat is there, recoiling and covering his ears.
A feral human figure with a dour gaze and stooped shoulders, who skulks through scenes, invisible to all the characters save Bigger, the Black Rat is among the most striking features of “Native Son,” the intense, eye-catching, occasionally mannered Mosaic Theater Company production. Directed by Psalmayene 24, Nambi E. Kelley’s 90-minute adaptation of Richard Wright’s harrowing naturalistic novel registers as a relentless fever dream, with realistic conversations gaining ominous power amid darting time shifts, shadowy lighting and occasional phantasmagoric images, such as a crowd of people all making the same violent gestures with bricks.
An integral part of this bleak pageant, the Black Rat (Vaughn Ryan Midder) is a fantastical presence who is also psychologically and sociologically telling.
Wright’s 1940 novel famously recounts Bigger Thomas’s excruciating experience amid the entrenched racism of 1930s Chicago. Adapting the story, playwright Kelley added the Black Rat character as a manifestation of what W.E.B. Du Bois would have called Bigger’s double consciousness. In the play, the give-and-take between Bigger and the Black Rat underscores Bigger’s intellectual and spiritual struggles, even as a racist society seeks to deny him agency. (“Native Son” launches Mosaic’s “Native Son Rep,” which will include the world premiere of Psalmayene 24’s play “Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son,” beginning April 7.)
In between confabs with the Black Rat, Bigger (Clayton Pelham Jr.) gets a chauffeur job in the home of the wealthy Mrs. Dalton (Melissa Flaim, radiating patronizing gentility). When her thoughtless daughter, Mary (Madeline Joey Rose, all wild-child energy), and Mary’s earnest communist boyfriend, Jan (Drew Kopas), put Bigger in a no-win situation, his reaction triggers terrible consequences.
The poised Pelham reveals Bigger’s strength, sensitivity, desperation and fear — a combustible mix of traits that propels the young Chicagoan from daydreaming (he pretends to be an aviator, using a pool cue as plane wings), through frightened surliness (in scenes with Mary and Jan), through violence. Bigger’s interactions with his bright-eyed younger brother, Buddy (the endearing Tendo Nsubuga), and mother, Hannah (Lolita Marie), are particularly poignant.
Renee Elizabeth Wilson contributes vibrancy and pathos as Bigger’s weary, fun-loving girlfriend, Bessie, and Stephen F. Schmidt conveys film-noir-brand menace as Britten, an investigator. As the Black Rat, Midder hits the right notes of wiliness and stoicism. (Katie Touart designed the atmospheric costumes.)
In stylized, dreamlike sequences, the performers sometimes execute choreographed movements that express either the social forces pitted against Bigger or else his panicked subjectivity. Sometimes, these images are too blunt or artificial. For example, an early moment in which onstage figures converge on Bigger, shoving him from all sides, seems to refer too explicitly to oppressive social realities. These conspicuous conceits aside, the storytelling moves fluidly at an adrenaline-fueled pace.
Washed in William K. D’Eugenio’s high-drama lighting, Ethan Sinnott’s stylized Chicago-streetscape set frequently becomes a canvas for Dylan Uremovich’s projections (falling snow, the Dalton mansion, a 1930s newsreel and more). Nick Hernandez’s sound design (including a furnace’s murmurs) adds to the pervasive air of danger. With these sensory cues evoking a restless apprehensiveness, it often feels as if we are inside Bigger’s mind as he recalls and broods over the factors that have enveloped him — and the Black Rat — in tragedy.
Native Son, by Nambi E. Kelley, based on Richard Wright’s novel. Directed by Psalmayene 24. Movement and fight choreographer, Tony Thomas; properties, Willow Watson. 90 minutes. Tickets: $20-$65. Through April 28 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Lang Theatre, 1333 H Street NE. 202-399-7993 or mosaictheater.org