In fresh and relevant ‘Native Son,’ audience might ask: Has anything changed?

Fresno State production of a new adaptation of Richard Wright’s classic novel is troubling and well-done

THEATER REVIEW

Fresno State’s provocative and worthwhile “Native Son” begins with the nearly naked form of Bigger Thomas, the play’s troubled protagonist, lying motionless on a table. Is he a dead body on a slab at the morgue? That’d be a pretty good guess. The audience is seated on all four sides of the stage, like a boxing ring, and as we stare at the character (played by Josh Slack) under the fierce stage lights, dressed only in flesh-colored briefs, a thought occurs: In these opening moments, it as if we are being asked by director Thomas-Whit Ellis and his cast to take on the role of voyeurs.

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Inner turmoil: Josh Slack, left, Emily Kearn and Jalen Stewart in “Native Son.” Photo / Fresno State

The object of our focused attention is the black body in U.S. society. Specifically, the bodies of black men like Bigger: products of abject poverty, blatant racism and diminished prospects. Bigger has spent his life under the gaze of a society that sees him first and foremost as a black male, and thus he is to be placed under careful and constant surveillance.

Eighty years in Chicago, when the play is set, that scrutiny was blatant. Under the social norms of that era, black men were to be cordoned off, kept in their place, pressed firmly under the greater culture’s thumb.

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Fresno, meet the real Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil

At Sunday’s final performance of ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,’ the famed composer-lyricist team was in the audience

The setting: the final Sunday evening performance of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” at Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre.

The special audience members: In the crowd were none other than the real-life Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, famed composer-lyricist team that wrote such tunes as “Uptown” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” who are major characters in “Beautiful.”

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Blast from the past: The real Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were in the Saroyan Theatre audience Sunday night for the last Fresno show of “Beautiful: The Carole King Story.” Photo / Julie Dana

Behind-the-scenes: I caught up with Fresno City College’s Julie Dana, who was in the audience, for the inside scoop. Her husband, Mike, found out early: He was playing in the pit orchestra, and the conductor told the instrumentalists there would be changes in the “bows” music at the end of the show so that Mann and Weil could be acknowledged. The cast wasn’t informed they were there beforehand.

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Update: CMT and city hope to find solution to Memorial Auditorium safety issues

An upcoming walk-through and meeting at the Fresno theater could determine if Children’s Musical Theaterworks can stay in the venue through the 2018 season

Leaders of Children’s Musical Theaterworks are breathing a little easier as the week comes to a close. A panicky last weekend had them wondering if the longtime company was going to be out on the street after the first of the year.

The situation isn’t yet resolved, and there are still safety considerations to address at the city-owned Veterans Memorial Auditorium, where the company has performed for 17 years. But in a Wednesday meeting that both CMT and city officials describe as productive and positive, there were signs of possible short-term fixes that could mean the company would stay in its performance space for the already announced 2018 season. It depends on whether CMT can avoid using equipment and infrastructure that a new city assessment identified as unsafe.

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A scene from the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” performed at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in July. Photo / CMT

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” city spokesman Mark Standriff told me by phone on Friday. “The most important thing is that the children in the shows are not subject to any danger. My number one concern is safety.”

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Donald’s list: Weekend choices (Oct. 27)

Options include Fresno State’s new production of “Native Son,” Arte Americas’ big “Cala Gala” festival, theater openings in Oakhurst and Visalia, and the National Chamber Choir of Armenia

Here’s a roundup of promising arts/culture picks for the weekend:

‘Native Son’

Fresno State’s theater department opens a new adaptation of Richard Wright’s classic novel about a poor black man living in 1930s Chicago accused of killing a wealthy white woman. I caught up with director Thomas-Whit Ellis for a rundown on the show.

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Joshua Slack and Arium Andrews star in “Native Son.” Photo / Fresno State

The new adaptation: “Native Son,” which Wright wrote in 1940, was adapted into a play soon afterward. (It was directed by Orson Welles and opened on Broadway in 1941.) In 2014, a new adaptation by Nambi Kelley opened in Chicago. Ellis had become a fan of Kelley’s work when he directed “Hands Up,” a 2016 Fresno State production written by seven playwrights. He saw the new “Native Son” in a production by the Marin Theatre Company. Fresno State is one of the first universities in the country to produce it, he says.

The format: Kelley adapted the novel into a compressed, taut, 90-minute series of vignettes in a “hard hitting, fast-paced manner,” Ellis says.

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Catching up with John Scalzi

The well-known science fiction writer — and former Fresno Bee movie critic — returns for a quick visit and update on his career

Earlier this month I was perusing a New York Times interview with Tom Hanks about his reading habits. I always eat these kinds of stories up. The reporter asked Hanks who his favorite novelists are.

His reply? Alan Furst, Philip Kerr, Amor Towles, John Scalzi.

There was a time early in the career of Scalzi, my friend and a former Fresno Bee colleague, when I would have been stunned to see his name bandied about by beloved actors in the national press. But I’m used to it by now. Scalzi, who preceded me as movie critic at The Bee, has had great success as a science-fiction author. He’s probably best known for his book “Old Man’s War,” which kicked off a popular series. He’s won a Hugo Award, served as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, is a contributing columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and writes the widely read blog Whatever.

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Old friends: John Scalzi and I talk about old times and new books at Fresno’s Radisson Hotel.

He was passing through Fresno last week with his wife, Krissy, and I got the chance to hang out with him for a couple of hours. What a treat!

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All the men in Merced keep getting killed by Candarian demons

Well, perhaps not every man. But the ones in Playhouse Merced’s jaunty “Evil Dead: The Musical” are possessed by supernatural fun. (The women, too)

THEATER REVIEW

If you’re a musical-theater fan, you understand when I say that sometimes a particular song from a show simply makes you happy. Often there’s no rhyme nor reason as to why this is so: It could be the lyrics, the tempo, even just the way the harmonies arrange themselves into a pleasing chordal resolution. When the mood strikes, I can listen to it on repeat for longer than I’d like to admit.

Confession time: One of those songs for me is “All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons” from “Evil Dead: The Musical.”

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Chainsaw massacre: Aaron Kohlhoff and Bridget Mitchell in “Evil Dead: The Musical.” Photo / Playhouse Merced

As a guilty pleasure, it makes me smile every single time.

When I found out that Playhouse Merced was presenting “Evil Dead” — which I’ve never seen live — I knew one thing: I’d be there opening night.

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King of the jukebox musicals

“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” offers nostalgia and empowerment in a first-rate production at Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre

THEATER REVIEW

The murmurs from the audience — what Sarah Bockel, the current star of the national tour of “Beautiful,” told me she calls the “rustle, rustle, rustle” — first surfaced on Tuesday night with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” That’s what happens in this show when people recognize the introductory bars of the best known Carole King songs. Think of it as an autonomic nervous response for folks. They can’t help but shift in their seats, bring their hands together in an almost-clap and whisper the opening words of the tune.

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The best part of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which opened for an eight-performance run at the Saroyan Theatre in a well-honed, emphatic and technically gorgeous performance, is this bond between music and audience. Most of the songs by King that prompt the outward display of affection from fans come in the second act, when selections from her famed “Tapestry” album (“It’s Too Late,” “A Natural Woman,” “You’ve Got a Friend”) get their big moments. But the first act, which focuses on King’s early days as a songwriter, is even more of a kick. Who remembered that she (and her husband, Gerry Goffin) were responsible for such tunes as “One Fine Day,” “Up on the Roof” and “Locomotion”?

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New Fulton Street makes a splash

Thousands turn out Saturday to experience the newly reopened road through downtown Fresno. I spend the afternoon with Joyce Aiken, one of the Fulton Mall’s original artists

The setting: 4 p.m. Saturday, Fulton Street downtown. People throng the six-block stretch of the newly reopened street that replaces the iconic Fulton Mall. It’s the perfect late Fresno afternoon to enjoy such an occasion: reasonably warm but with a crisp hint in the air; the sky big and blue; and the sun getting into countdown position for Golden Hour, favorite of all photographers, when the soft light can make any tableau look good, much less ones that cost $20 million.

The scene: There are “pop-up” stores up and down the street, ranging from boutique clothing shops to a spiffy little temporary space occupied by the Fresno Art Museum. (Wouldn’t it be great to see a permanent downtown satellite gallery space for the museum?) Music blares, lines form for the beer garden, friends shout hello to each other. People linger in front of the restored sculptures, many of which look fresher than they have for decades. There’s water in all the fountains, too, and that, combined with the bustle of the foot traffic, gives a splash of energy and vitality to the proceedings.

My profound and original observation: The city closed down the newly reopened street for the occasion, giving us the freedom to skip the sidewalks and wander down the center of the freshly paved boulevard. But wait, I think: People walking down Fulton? Wasn’t that what they could do before the removal of the mall? Think of the irony of it all.

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