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PlayMakers Rep Director Colette Robert and Her Cast Don’t Pull Any Punches in Nambi Kelley’s Adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son

Brandon Herman St. Clair Haynes stars as Bigger Thomas in Native Son at PRC (photo by HuthPhoto)

“When I was selecting plays for our Legacy| NOW 2019-20 season, I found myself drawn to works that provide insight into our present moment through the visceral and intellectual investigation of the stories of our past,” said PlayMakers Repertory Company producing artistic director Vivienne Benesch in a press release. “Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of [Richard Wright’s 1940 novel] Native Son was the perfect, gutsy, all-too-timely choice to open our Mainstage season.”

The first stage adaptation was written in 1941 in Chapel Hill, by Wright and beloved North Carolina playwright Paul Green. Colette Robert will direct this Nambi E. Kelley adaptation, which lasts approximately 90 minutes, and is performed without an intermission.

Native Son is a journey into the mind and soul of Bigger Thomas (Brandon Herman St. Clair Haynes), a young black man growing up in poverty in a rat-infested tenement in Chicago during the 1930s. The play opens like the novel, with Bigger killing a rat with a skillet. Then the Nambi E. Kelley adaptation begins to veer from a traditional, chronological telling of the story. Kelley has created a series of short scenes, sometimes almost randomly placed in the play. The thread that holds the scenes together is that she completes a scene with a phrase or word that is picked up by another actor in a subsequent scene. This is a technique that works a good deal of the time, but at other times is a bit confusing. That is where familiarity with the novel is helpful.

Kelley captures the essence of Bigger’s mind through the addition of a new character — the personification of his thoughts called “The Black Rat,” (played by Brandon J. Pierce). The Black Rat follows Bigger throughout the play, a shadow who sometimes tortures, sometimes cajoles, and sometimes tries to save Bigger from himself. But Bigger is ultimately at the mercy of forces beyond his control.

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)

Brandon Haynes and Brandon Pierce create a balanced team, sharing the stage in interesting and evocative ways, often with Pierce as a shadow or mirror. But, at any time, either actor can take control of the scene and then immediately give way to the other.

This dual character is one of the many challenges director Colette Robert handles with aplomb. As one scene breaks away into another, Robert uses every arrow in the theater quiver to make it clear to the audience what is happening: actors freeze in place, the lighting makes an abrupt change, a sound effect is added, or Robert moves our eye to another part of the playing space.

A strong ensemble of seven actors perform all of the other roles. PlayMakers Repertory Company member Julia Gibson is spot-on as the blind Mrs. Dalton, spouting her rich, liberal white platitudes to Bigger, adding to his (and our) discomfort. As blonde Mary Dalton, Sarah Elizabeth Keyes embodies the “rich girl looking for a thrill” stereotype, flirting with Bigger, drinking, and dating a Communist.

Communist boyfriend Jan is well played by the versatile Adam Poole. April Mae Davis is amazing to watch as Bessie, who smells of “gin and bleach,” expressing the frustrations and fears of a young black woman resigned to a life of cleaning houses for white people, and longing for better.

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)

Tia James gives a heartbreaking portrayal of Bigger’s long-suffering mother. Amadio Perez provides comic relief as Bigger’s younger brother Buddy. As a private investigator named Britten, Daniel P. Wilson grounds us in the story with his strong presence and even stronger opinions.

Sound designer/composer G. Clausen adds an important level of storytelling, through a rich soundtrack and realistic sound effects delivered perfectly on-cue. Bobbi Owen’s costumes also contribute beautifully to the storytelling, with a special nod to Bessie and Mary’s looks.

Scenic designer Lawrence E. Moten III has painted the deck of the Paul Green Theatre as a decomposing American flag, and creates an environment that resembles an airplane hanger. Various-sized shipping boxes and scaffolds provide the playing space for the entire show.

The airline hanger has meaning, in that Bigger’s dream was to be an airplane pilot; but the various boxes seemed oddly placed and often the wrong size and shape to represent items like sofas, beds, furnaces, and kitchen counters. Moreover, the addition of airplane props, such as fuel cans and military items, seemed out of place and cluttered the set. Yet essential props, for example a water pitcher and glass, had to be hidden behind the set elements and awkwardly brought out when needed.

April Mae Davis and Brandon Herman St. Clair Haynes star as Bessie and Bigger Thomas in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s presentation of Native Son (photo by HuthPhoto)

In the playbill’s Program Notes, dramaturg Adam Versényi provides a great deal of insight into 1930s Chicago, the novel, and the themes of the play. As an audience member, I was glad that I arrived in time to read the entire article before the show.

Versényi teaches us about the oppressive South Side tenements and the seemingly insurmountable barriers of social injustice in Chicago at the time. He also references the Chicago Black Renaissance from the 1930s until the 1950s, with emerging black artists, such as Richard Wright, Mahalia Jackson, and Langston Hughes.

Native Son is a no-holds-barred play, and director Colette Robert and her cast do not pull any punches. The violence, language, terror, and horror are all on vivid display. It is impossible to see Native Son at PlayMakers Rep and not be horrified and moved by the plight of the people who exist on the lowest rung of the societal ladder.

Brandon Herman St. Clair Haynes {left) as Bigger Thomas and Brandon J. Pierce as The Black Rat look down at Sarah Elizabeth Keyes as Mary Dalton (photo by HuthPhoto)

SECOND OPINION: Sept. 17th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2019/09/playmakers-repertory-companys-native-son-sparks-great-thought/; and Sept. 11th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://indyweek.com/events/native-son-playmakers-september-2019/.

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, prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or https://tickets.playmakersrep.org/.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/box-office/groups-and-special-events/.

SHOW: http://playmakersrep.org/show/native-son/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/2351206744995336/.

VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2d6GaNYHCQ.

PRC NEWS RELEASE: http://playmakersrep.org/press/photo-release-native-son/.

2019-20 SEASON (Legacy Now): http://playmakersrep.org/season/2019-2020/

PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.

PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.

VENUE: http://playmakersrep.org/about-us/paul-green-theatre/ and http://unchistory.web.unc.edu/building-narratives/paul-green-theatre/.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.

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.

OTHER LINKS:

Native Son (1940 novel): https://www.britannica.com/topic/Native-Son (Encyclopædia Britannica) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_Son (Wikipedia).

The Novel: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Richard Wright (African-American author, nee Richard Nathaniel Wright, 1908-60): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Richard-Wright-American-writer (Encyclopædia Britannica), https://playmakersrep.org/artists/richard-wright/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/richard-wright-8332 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0942740/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Wright_(author) (Wikipedia).

Native Son (2019 drama): http://theactingcompany.org/plays/2017-18-season/native-son-2018-19 (official website), https://www.samuelfrench.com/p/59124/native-son-kelleywright (Samuel French, Inc.), and http://iobdb.com/Production/6805 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).

Nambi E. Kelley (playwright and actress): http://www.nambikelley.com/ (official website), http://playmakersrep.org/artists/nambi-e-kelley/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), http://iobdb.com/CreditableEntity/52605 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0445963/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/nambi.e.kelley (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/NambiKelley (Twitter page).

Colette Robert (director and actress): https://www.coletterobert.com/ (official website), http://playmakersrep.org/artists/colette-robert/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/colette-robert-484810 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.facebook.com/colette.robert (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/colettemrobert (Twitter page).

REVIEWER:

Nancy Rich is a local director/choreographer, with a love for the performing arts and a passion for supporting local artistic work. Nancy and her husband, Rod, own and operate Monkeybravo, a video production company. Nancy is one of the founders of Actors Comedy Lab and participates in local theater as a hired gun, a volunteer and, on very rare occasions, an actor. Nancy recently wrote a series of monologues called The PRINCESS Talks, performed at the 2017 Women’s Theatre Festival. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews