Friday, April 20, 2018


Noel Arthur and Jon Chaffin                                  
Photo Credit Geoffrey Wade Photography

 Richard Wright's pithy novel, "Native Son", adapted to the stage by Nambi E. Kelley and directed by Andi Chapman for Glendale's Antaeus Theatre Company examines the story of Bigger Thomas (Jon Chaffin) and the struggles of black folks in 1930's Chicago.  With slavery only a few generations in the past (Wright's grandparents had been slaves), African Americans have few choices for survival. For Antaeus to tackle this piece shows grit and courage as the United States, slogging past the last election with bigotry and half truths still dogging those caught in the uncomfortable bonds of prejudice continues to degrade and embarrass our country. 

What Ms Kelley, does by culling dialogue and difficult settings from Wright's classic novel challenges the audience to examine its own prejudgements and social priorities in the harsh mirror of the times both then and now.  No one escapes prejudice.  Kelley has transformed the novel to a level of introspection and interpretation that, had I not been slightly familiar with the book itself, I might have found her choices difficult to understand. In the novel, twenty year old Bigger Thomas, living in virtual squalor, is attacked by a 'black rat' that the playwright transforms into a reflection of Bigger as he struggles with himself in the mirror of his own mind to rise above the limitations imposed on him by society in 1939. The personification of The Black Rat (Noel Arthur) reflects Bigger becoming a dual force in the play. Bigger and The Black Rat act as a single unit, informing one another in an odd dance that director Chapman sometimes has a handle on and at others we are not so sure. In notes she states that the play 'takes off like a runaway train' which she presents literally.  

Heavy handed but appropriate effects by Adam Macias and Jeff Gardner greet the audience filing into Edward E. Haynes, Jr.'s charred bare bones set.  The Chicago El thunders through, literally shaking the entire theater, as we discover Bigger Thomas at the end of his story. Time and place waft in and out as in a dream with the scene that sets the story afire,  which occurs later in Wright's novel

Bigger has been hired to do handyman work and becomes the driver for the rich owner of the building where he and his family live.  The odd out of place sequence of his attempt to deliver Mary (Ellis Greer), the spoiled and rebellious daughter of the family, drunk from an evening of carousing to her bed, evolves from her drunken state  to seduction of the boy resulting in the murder that begins to crumble the foundation of the young man's efforts to make something of himself.

Perhaps it was opening night adrenaline or a strong director's hand that accelerated the actors to shouting and a break neck pace to tell the story. Special effects to accentuate some of the pantomimed physical business distracted me a bit. In order for a theatrical piece to work, there must be an opportunity to build, not only the plot, but the motivations and actions of the actors.  Costumes by Wendell C. Carmichael are perfect.

Outstanding as Bigger's put-upon mother, Hannah, Victoria Platt finds important moments.  Doubling as sister Bessie and Bigger's lover, Vera, Mildred Marie Langford nailed the two entirely different characters. Brandon Rachal plays brother Buddy.

The story of Bigger being more or less recruited to communist ideas by well meaning Matthew Grondin as Jan, the forbidden boyfriend of Mary puts our hero more in peril. Through Mary's blind mother, Mrs. Dalton (Gigi Bermingham), we hear the angry voice of Wright as she demeans and denigrates the boy, prejudice oozing smoothly from her essence. 

Many attendees to the theatre these days may embrace progressive ideas and ideals. "Native Son" creates an opportunity to examine our own basic instincts and limbic reactions encountering  what may be even surprising and unexpected deep emotions. 

The strong polemic draws upon the sad state of affairs that informed the United States as the Jim Crow era slowly began its march to freedom for African Americans. The lesson here is that we still have a considerable road ahead of us.  Criticisms notwithstanding, the story of "Native Son" is a story worth telling Antaeus has taken a bold step to bring it to the stage. 

NATIVE SON by Nambi E. Kelley 
Antaeus Theatre Company
Kiki & David Gindler
Performing Arts Center
110 E. Broadway
Glendale, CA 91205
Opened April 19, 2018
Continues through June 3, 2018
Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM
Sundays at 2PM
Mondays at 8PM
One additional performance 
Thursday, May 31, 2018
No performances
 Monday 4/23 or 5/28/2018
Tickets and Information

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