Nora Fiffer, Jerod Haynes, Jeff Blim, Eric Lynch
Nora Fiffer, Jerod Haynes, Jeff Blim, Eric Lynch Credit: Michael Brosilow

Richard Wright opens his engrossing, traumatizing 1940 novel Native Son in a run-down one-room kitchenette. Bigger Thomas, the story’s murderous 20-year-old protagonist, lives there with his mother, brother, and sister—and a marauding rat. For Wright this cramped apartment in Chicago’s black belt, the only neighborhood where African-Americans are allowed to live, epitomized the prevailing conditions in urban black America. As he wrote the following year in 12 Million Black Voices, “The kitchenette throws desperate and unhappy people together into an unbearable closeness . . . producing warped personalities.” Personalities, Wright added, that were already “blasted with two hundred years of slavery.”

Like the surrounding slum, a neglected monolith of white power, the kitchenette cages Bigger, keeping meaningful opportunities for advancement or human connection beyond reach. The apartment enrages him, as does most everything and everyone he encounters throughout the novel, because it daily reminds him of his own impotence. It’s the emasculating terror of Jim Crow inscribed at its most intimate and inescapable level.

In Nambi E. Kelley’s new stage adaptation, a coproduction of Court Theatre and American Blues Theater, the conditions of the Thomas kitchenette barely register. That’s partly because Regina Garcia’s handsome open set renders the apartment visually indistinguishable from most other locations in the peripatetic show. But it’s also because director Seret Scott gives the novel’s opening scene, in which Bigger defends his family against the charging rat, an almost lighthearted tone. It evoked copious chuckles on opening night.

Throughout the first half of this brisk 90-minute production, that tone pervades—an odd choice given the psychological and emotional depth of the story, depths Scott’s uniformly excellent, serious-minded cast could handily probe. Kelley adds some gravitas by flinging Bigger into interweaving scenes that jump unpredictably in time, as though he’s buffeted by forces beyond his control. But doing so also obscures the narrative and diverts the novel’s harrowing avalanche toward the inevitable.

Even when things turn decidedly serious in the second half, the social world that smothers Bigger and gives the novel its crushing scope remains as indistinct as his kitchenette. For Wright, white America in a thousand insidious ways deems black men always already guilty. So when Bigger accidentally murders a young white woman—in order to avoid being falsely accused of raping her—Wright suggests, among many other things, that Bigger is performing the role white America prescribes for him. Wright asks to what extent the singularly oppressive conditions in black America help delimit Bigger’s fate.

Here, those conditions aren’t convincingly dramatized, compromising the story’s moral complexity and urgency. While Bigger and his semi-invisible sidekick the Black Rat (a character lacking clear purpose) repeatedly intone that their mirrors reflect only negative self-images imposed by white society, that sentiment feels rhetorical rather than lived. More often than not, this Bigger suffers situational shame and unfairness rather than profound societal trauma.