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      Native Son
    Doing the Wright thing

    Classical Theater of Harlem presents a brutally faithful version of Richard Wright's "Native Son," the audience-challenging story of a black hoodlum who inadvertently kills a white girl.


    "Native Son" has such theatrical impact in Classical Theater of Harlem's production that you'd hardly know Richard Wright's landmark 1940 novel wasn't written for the stage.

    The story is a challenging one. At first you want to sympathize with the would-be hero, a strong young black kid named Bigger Thomas, and when he commits murder you can bring yourself to see his side of it. Mary, the drunken and liberal-minded daughter of the wealthy family for whom Bigger is working as a chauffeur, makes a kind of delirious pass at him, but when the girl's mother threatens to discover them, Bigger panics and smothers the girl with a pillow trying to keep her quiet. It's no act of hatred, but rather a response to racial fear — being discovered with one's pants down atop a lovely specimen of white womanhood like Mary was enough to get a black kid lynched.

    Company: Classical Theater of Harlem.
    Written and directed by: Christopher McElroen.
    Based on the novel by: Richard Wright.
    Cast: Ben Rivers, Jonnie Mae, Christina Sajous, Aman Re-Jack, Jim Ganser, Tracy Johnson, Michael C. O'Day, Stan Tracy & Ed Winrow, Robert Heller, Josh Sajous, Damien Smith, Jason Nijous, Maureen Shannon, Arlene Nadel.
    Set design: Chris Thomas.
    Lighting design: Colin Young.
    Sound design: Stefan Jacobs.
    Costume design: Kimberly Glennon.
    Fight direction: T.J. Glenn.
    Stage manager: Noel Mendez.
    HSA Theater
    645 St. Nicholas Ave. (near 141st St.)
    Feb. 1 - March 3, 2002

    But if, at this point, you think you can still defend Bigger, he soon exposes himself as a true monster. Bigger stuffs the body in the furnace and goes on normally for a while until he's exposed and has to go on the run. While running from the law, he commits a second act of violence — for those who haven't read the book, I won't give away what he does, but it is a greater horror than the first, and you can no longer defend him. If you ever thought he was just a misunderstood and confused kid, you were wrong.

    And yet, Wright still wants to challenge your thinking on this subject. The story culminates in Bigger's trial, and the key to the whole story is the defense lawyer's speech trying to make sense of everything we've just seen. What made Bigger Thomas who he is? Is the "negro sex killer" of tabloid headlines a monster or the creation of many centuries of black experience in America?

    Think what you will about these subjects — in fact, it's as unfashionable now as it was daring in 1940 to point to societal factors for a poor black person's crimes. But even today, "Native Son" is a difficult story that makes you think hard about the consequences of racial animosity in America. It is also a plea for stopping the violence and bridging the 400-year historical gap between the races.

      The trial scene — the key to the whole play — is staged with all parties facing forward, putting the audience in the judge's chair.
    It's possible to botch this story thoroughly if you're not brave enough to see it through. That was the case with the gutless 1986 film version starring Matt Dillon and Oprah Winfrey, which basically omitted both the second act of violence and the pivotal defense speech, leaving only the relatively empty story of a guy who killed a girl for no particular reason.

    The Classical Theater of Harlem's production is, however, uncompromisingly true to the book and staged with all of Wright's original fury. Just to name two elements that make a huge impression, one is the noisy, red-glowing, smoke-belching furnace which — especially if you know what's coming — is a fearsome sight from the moment it appears onstage. And second, the trial scene — the key to the whole play — is staged with all parties facing forward, putting the audience in the judge's chair. Not only does that aim the two lawyers' impassioned arguments directly at us, but it also puts Bigger right in center stage staring at us with a silent, burning anger through the entire proceeding.

    Among the outstanding cast, Ben Rivers deserves great credit for his portrayal of the two-sided Bigger Thomas, who's brutish with his family and his hoodlum friends, but turns terrified and servile around whites, even those who clumsily reach out to him in friendship. It adds up to a passionate production that really works on stage, doing justice to Wright's angry vision and pressuring us to make up our minds about how we respond to what centuries of historical evil have done to our society.

    FEBRUARY 6, 2002

    Reader comments on Native Son:

  • [no subject]   from C. Arthur Smith><br> , Feb 6, 2002
  • Native   from Nnenna, Jul 7, 2003
  • [no subject]   from kristina peterson, Nov 14, 2007

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