Native Son

Stage Actors Ensemble

at the Performance Loft

Soon after Nicole Brown Simpson’s murder, before anyone realized that her ex-husband’s trial would be the national Rorschach test on race, some folks at a party were discussing why O.J. would have done it. Finally a man with impeccable liberal credentials dismissed the question: “Reversion to type,” he shrugged. Even if by “type” he meant “ghetto-reared football player, therefore violent,” it was a frightening comment–more likely he was making an essentialist statement about black people.

But in Native Son, published in 1940, Richard Wright makes every character revert to type: all of us are as society has shaped us. Starting with the title–“native” meaning “natural” or “primitive” as well as “suitable to the environment” and “in his element”–Wright argues that injury and conflict lay bare the self. Bigger Thomas’s half-latent violence becomes patent when he finds himself nearly trapped in the bedroom of his employer’s daughter, Mary. Mr. Dalton, the employer, brandishes the power of his money as soon as he suspects his daughter has been kidnapped. Mary can’t help reverting to her spoiled, petted self when she’s drunk and lonely; her communist boyfriend, Jan, must go on believing that Bigger is part of the revolutionary vanguard, not just a murderer trying to make Jan his scapegoat; Bigger’s mother can’t help going down on her knees to the Daltons, and by proxy the entire white world, when Bigger is condemned to die even though otherwise she’s a woman of proud independence. Native Son illustrates the inevitable car accident at the intersection of all these can’t-help-its.

The only problem with this view–a simplification of Wright but not, I believe, a distortion–is that it’s fundamentally static. If every action is determined by overwhelming sociopolitical forces, then people act less than they’re acted upon. But drama comes only when characters have some measure of freedom. Wright’s book succeeds because he’s astute enough to trump doctrinaire communism: though he’s committed to the idea that human beings are shaped by economics, he also knows that psychological truth requires Bigger to choose murder rather than be predestined to commit it by poverty and racism. Though the choices available to him are constricted and distorted, maximizing the likelihood that he’ll make a wrong decision, in the novel Bigger retains responsibility for his actions–finally, the only thing he has to show for being alive, the only real evidence of his humanity. Wright presented Americans with an existential antihero before we’d even learned to talk in those terms, and subordinated his polemic to the demands of that character.

When Orson Welles directed the original stage adaptation by Wright and Paul Green in 1941, the critical consensus was that the play was riveting until Bigger’s arrest, when it collapsed under the weight of political speeches masquerading as courtroom oratory. (Few reviewers mistook those speeches for the sole point of the work, though the headline for John Anderson’s piece in the New York Journal and American read “‘Native Son’ Links Red, Racial Themes: Dramatization of Negro Novel Provides Propaganda.”)

Tom Small’s version of the Wright-Green adaptation has the same problem, reducing Wright’s complex notion–that murder is not inevitable but is the only choice, and failing to make that choice dooms a man to nonexistence–to speeches by socially conscious lawyers and others blind to Bigger’s brutality because they’re determined to make him a symbol of something (O.J., anyone?). The intermission between crime and punishment (wisely omitted by Welles) only exacerbates our feeling that once Bigger’s been captured, the rest of us are in for it too–that someone’s suddenly applied the brakes midaccident. It’s less the fault of this Stage Actors Ensemble production than of the play that it can only maintain momentum when Bigger is acting: plotting a heist, taking a job, killing, running away. In the first act, the audience sees the world through Bigger’s eyes, but by the second he’s got nothing to do but sit, in a cell or in a courtroom, while various people (from the church, the state, the party–and it’s nearly that formulaic) talk at him or make a claim for his soul.

Director Stephan Turner and his strong cast wring every drop of tension from the first act. Turner’s repeated placement of Bigger under the covers–in his mother’s apartment, with his girlfriend, hiding from the Daltons, hiding from the police–elegantly points out the character’s invisibility. Likewise Turner’s decision to highlight the pillow when Bigger smothers Mary evokes Othello and Desdemona, enhancing the personal dimension of the tragedy without making too much of it.

Lionel Gentle gives a fine performance as Bigger–as long as the character has anything to do. Gentle has some of Vincent D’Onofrio’s weird, unpredictable energy: even when D’Onofrio plays a cop it seems he’s about to commit murder or expose himself. Gentle’s sudden turns to violence have a similar volcanic quality. Jeannette Blackwell makes Mrs. Thomas–whose lines scream “standard long-suffering mother”–the moral center of a howling universe, so that when she goes down on her knees the audience too feels stripped of dignity. Her parallel is the gracious Mrs. Dalton (whose physical blindness too neatly highlights the moral blindness of others), played perfectly by Carolyn Bowyer. Appearing only briefly, Denise Marunowski makes the doomed Mary so self-indulgent we’d like to kill her ourselves. With the exception of the appalling Tom Camacho, utterly out of his depth as the DA, the supporting cast measures up to the central players.

The most powerful line in the final scenes is Bigger’s repeated injunction to “forget about me.” Together Turner and Gentle make this an encapsulation of Wright’s whole point: that everyone did forget about Bigger, what he wanted and needed, until it was too late.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen Turner.