• Anthony Chase

"Native Son" at the Paul Robeson Theatre

Janae' Leonard as Bessie, and Alphonso Walker, Jr. as Bigger Thomas in "Native Son" at the Paul Robeson Theatre. photo: Jerome Shadwick


Nambi E. Kelley’s stage adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, demonstrates just how much anxiety can be generated through dramatic irony. The audience knows that every decision the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, makes will take him one step closer to his doom. Nonetheless, we root relentlessly for an impossible outcome, yearning for a happy ending. We know full well that this man is caught in a trap of narrative from which there is no escape.

To begin, Bigger Thomas is guilty. He has, without question, killed a woman. Her death is accidental and without malice. That makes no difference. Neither does the fact that Bigger has been coerced into an impossible situation by the victim herself and her equally naïve, if well intentioned suitor. As an African American man who has caused the death of a white socialite, he is trapped, no matter the circumstances.

In the world of 1930s Chicago, certain fictions regarding African American men, or Communists, or wealthy white women, play out with a certain inevitability. What you look like becomes more important than who you really are. Truth is often inconsequential. Bigger’s mother repeatedly reminds him to look in the mirror to see for himself what the White world sees -- in her words, nothing but a man who is black as a rat.

There are times when the characters in Native Son fully understand that they are trapped in preposterous fictions. Bigger’s girlfriend, Bessie, warns him, that if he killed a white woman, the white world will inevitably conclude that he also raped her. They do. In the final moments of the play, when asked to account for his deeds, Bigger blurts out that the issue is not anything he has done, but “what they do!” He cannot escape the machinery of racism.

These are the workings of the play. Add in the playwright’s creation of a character to represent Bigger’s inner voice, a more worldly and cynical version of himself called “The Black Rat.” The conversations between Bigger and Black Rat, between “is” and “should be,” provide an ongoing commentary.

Under the direction of Paulette D. Harris, an able ensemble of nine actors tells the story with clarity. Alphonso Walker, Jr. plays Bigger, and the role is a heavy lift. He gives us an appealing and likable fellow, and in a steady performance, does what he can to build the momentum of the piece as the man’s circumstances become more frantic. This is an uphill climb, as the quick episodes play out in isolation from each other in this production, making the show’s 90 minute running time feel rather longer.

Attention to physicality is handled casually. This is a particular problem in the scenes between Bigger and Black Rat. Is this the incarnation of the man’s inner voice, or more a narrator along the lines of Rod Serling on “The Twilight Zone”?

Other moments of physicality, as with the actual death of Mary Dalton, and the disposal of another body (yes, this is quite a ride), also play without clarity. Though in the latter, Bigger's belated realization that his money was in corpse's pocket provides a welcome moment of gallows humor. The Curtain Call itself serves to diffuse of power and drama of the otherwise excellent staging of the final scene.

In their isolation, the actors are quite good. Characters are specific and distinct: Walker, Jr. as Bigger, Augustus Donaldson; Jr. as “The Black Rat”; Deborah A. Krygier as socialite Mrs. Dalton; Debbi Davis as Bigger’s fretful mother; Janae’ Leonard as Bigger’s alcoholic yet insightful girlfriend; Jerai Kahdim as Bigger’s brother Buddy; John Warzel as the communist boyfriend of Mary Dalton, played by Madeline Allard; and Shawn Patrick Greene as investigator Britten.

Harlan Penn provides another excellent set.

Native Son continues through Feb 10, Fri & Sat at 8, Sun at 4. Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave. (884-2013). www.aaccbuffalo.org

©2019 by Theater Talk ... and I'm Anthony Chase

Buffalo, NY, USA