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PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Native Son Sparks Great Thought

Native Son at PlayMakers Rep stars (from left) Sarah Elizabeth Keyes Brandon as Mary Dalton, Herman St. Clair Haynes as Bigger Thomas, and Brandon J. Pierce as The Black Rat (photo by HuthPhoto)

PlayMakers Repertory Company has opened its new season with a beautiful and thought-provoking production of Nambi E. Kelley’s Native Son, based on the novel by Richard Wright and intricately directed by Colette Robert.

This updated version of the play is still set in 1939, but something about it feels more modern and fresh than Paul Green’s 1941 stage adaptation. In fact, the freshness and relevance of the show is alarming. As viewers watch the tragic tale unfold, all played out atop a stage effectively painted to look like a tattered and torn American flag, the message is clear: too much has stayed the same in our country. The world, at least in terms of how it treats minorities, is not as different from the world of 1939 as it should be.

Kelley’s non-linear script turns a laser focus on Bigger Thomas (Brandon Herman St. Clair Haynes) and the urging, affected voice inside his head, personified by The Black Rat (Brandon J. Pierce). When Bigger accidentally kills a white woman named Mary (Sarah Elizabeth Keyes), his life spirals. Confounded by his lifelong treatment by White people, the ugly things he’s been led to believe about himself, and the sheer turmoil of knowing he’ll never be believed, Bigger makes one bad choice after another. However, the script asks the audience to question whether Bigger is really making these choices. Does he have any choice at all? Or, is he merely a “native son,” a product of a messed-up world and the effect it has had on him?

These questions lead to deeper ones, making for a heavy 90 minutes. Throughout it all, Haynes effectively portrays Bigger and all the parts of him. His representation of the character is flawless and painfully believable. Serving as a counterbalance to Haynes’ serious, brooding representation, Keyes plays her character as flighty and careless, showcasing the great difference in the way these two characters live their lives, in the way they are allowed to live their lives.

Robert’s direction has these main characters and more moving all over the small set. They climb, scramble around, and yet remain trapped, going nowhere, just as the script paints them. Tough to watch but beautifully done and definitely worth some after-viewing thought, PlayMakers’ Native Son is an important and much-needed theatrical piece for modern times.

The Native Son cast includes (from left) Daniel P. Wilson as Britten, Brandon J. Pierce as The Black Rat, and Brandon Herman St. Clair Haynes as Bigger Thomas (photo by HuthPhoto)

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents NATIVE SON at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 17-20, 2 p.m. Sept. 22, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24-27, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $15 and up.

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY,, or

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529),, or

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NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.

NOTE 2: Click here and scroll down for a list of free post-show discussions and other events during the run of this show.


Native Son (1940 novel): (Encyclopædia Britannica) and (Wikipedia).

The Novel: (Google Books).

Richard Wright (African-American author, nee Richard Nathaniel Wright, 1908-60): (Encyclopædia Britannica), (PlayMakers Rep bio), (Internet Broadway Database), (Internet Movie Database), and (Wikipedia).

Native Son (2019 drama): (official website), (Samuel French, Inc.), and (Internet Off-Broadway Database).

Nambi E. Kelley (playwright and actress): (official website), (PlayMakers Rep bio), (Internet Off-Broadway Database), (Internet Movie Database), (Facebook page), and (Twitter page).

Colette Robert (director and actress): (official website), (PlayMakers Rep bio), (Internet Broadway Database), (Facebook page), and (Twitter page).


Susie Potter is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer and editor. She is a 2009 graduate of Raleigh’s Meredith College, where she majored in English. She holds graduate degrees in teaching and American literature from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. In addition to her work for Triangle Arts and Entertainment, she is an award-winning author of short fiction. Her works have appeared in The Colton Review, Raleigh Quarterly, Broken Plate Magazine, Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, the Chaffey Review, and Existere. To read all of Susie Potter’s Triangle Arts and Entertainment articles and reviews, click To read more of her writings, click,, and

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