Yale Repertory Theatre
“Native Son,” a stage adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel by Nambi E. Kelley, is currently being presented at Yale Repertory Theatre in a dark, electric, supremely well-acted production. Playwright Nambi E. Kelley has thrillingly pared down Richard Wright’s novel into a tight, concise ninety minute play that is completely riveting. Kelley is aided by Seret Scott’s razor-sharp direction and a uniformly gifted cast of actors. Above all, there is Jerod Haynes, as the main character Bigger, in a breakout performance that just seems to get better as the play hurtles forward. Set in 1939 Chicago, “Native Son” also boasts a stylish, jazzy atmosphere that you can practically cut with a knife. There is not a moment wasted in this show and “Native Son,” at Yale Repertory Theatre, ultimately proves to be an eye-opening theatrical experience.
Even before the play begins, Ryan Emens’ multi-level set can be seen on the jet black stage. The scenic design is essentially a series of fire escapes and staircases that also serve as a kind of prison for the central character of Bigger. The playwright has come up with the brilliant idea of having another actor shadow Bigger throughout the show: named The Black Rat, this character acts as the inner mind and soul of Bigger, conveying his thoughts and motivations. As it turns out, these two performers work wonderfully together and both actors give flawless performances.
As mentioned, Jerod Haynes is pretty ideal as Bigger. Onstage nearly from beginning to end, Haynes carves out a portrait of a haunted, trapped man who wants to do the right thing, but, despite his best efforts, just seems to get deeper and deeper in trouble. Jason Bowen is sinuous and sly as The Black Rat, verbalizing the words and thoughts that Bigger cannot express. Director Seret Scott has them move in tandem all over the stage almost as a single character and these two actors play off each other perfectly.
This is not to minimize the performances of anyone else in the show. Appearing in the opening scene, Louisa Jacobson is extraordinary as Mary, the white girl whom Bigger works for, and Jacobson does a convincing job of appearing drunk onstage. Not to give anything away, but the beginning moments of “Native Son,” and what happens during them, set the stage for the nightmarish series of events in the show. The playwright works in a non-linear way, with the plot jumping back and forward in time and almost all of the scenes are short and explosive, with danger lurking around every corner.
The audience gets to see Bigger with his family, including his harsh mother, Hannah, expertly played by Rosalyn Coleman, as well as his brother Buddy (the excellent Jasai Chase-Owens), who acts as Bigger’s partner in crime. Interestingly, Jessica Frances Dukes plays both Bigger’s sister Vera and his girlfriend Bessie and she is so good portraying these dual roles that you would think it was two different actresses onstage taking on these radically different parts.
Rounding out the cast, Carmen Roman is tragically elegant as Mary’s blind mother, Mrs. Dalton, and one truly aches for this heartbreaking character. Michael Pemberton is imposing as the detective, named Britten, in his investigation of a series of crimes. The fine Joby Earle plays a few different parts in the play, but he stands out the most as Mary’s Communist friend Jan, who attempts to sway Bigger into joining his cause. Under Seret Scott’s sharp direction, just about everyone onstage gets to make his or her own mark in this show.
Complimenting the stark scenic design, Katie Touart does wonders in dressing all the actors in period perfect costumes. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting design is incisive, often isolating the character of Bigger during key moments in the show. What’s more, Frederick Kennedy’s sound design is crystal clear and Kennedy has also composed the beautiful jazz score that is played throughout the show. The combination of all of the designers’ talents mesh perfectly together in creating the ideal ambiance for this play.
“Native Son” is a show that truly grabs you by the neck from the moment it begins and holds you in thrall until the breathless final moments of the play. Having read and loved Richard Wright’s novel, I thought that I knew this story well, but Nambi E. Kelley’s stage adaptation ranks as an equally bold and significant entity of its own. It must be said, though, that the most outstanding elements of “Native Son” at Yale Repertory Theatre are the combined performances of Jerod Haynes and Jason Bowen in portraying the central character and these two actors are truly unforgettable.
“Native Son” continues performances at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, CT through December 16, 2017. For tickets, please visit www.yalerep.org or call the box office at 203-432-1234.
Photo: (L-R): Jerod Haynes and Jason Bowen
Photo by Joan Marcus