Here’s a roundup of promising arts/culture picks for the weekend:
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.
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.
The plot: “Native Son” is the story of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, whose poverty-stricken upbringing helped launch him into a life of crime. When he gets a job as a driver for a wealthy (and progressive) white family, it seems as if his life is at a turning point — until a horrific series of events unfold on his first night on the job.
The themes: Mental health is a big issue in the play, and Ellis hopes to tease that out. “Bigger suffers from an environmentally induced madness as do a lot of African-American males who have to wrestle with coming out of a cycle of poverty, lack of education and crime,” he says. “There’s no way out.”
The justice system: You can’t watch “Native Son,” which offers a searing look at the criminal justice and penal system in the 1930s, without thinking about the relevance of such issues in 2017. Racial profiling, police violence and the conviction of innocent people are all hot-button topics. “I think it’s safe to say that we have devolved back to 1940s levels,” Ellis says.
The nuance: Yet “Native Son” has always been a conflicted and complicated work of art, with no easy answers. It isn’t the story of a guiltless man railroaded for a crime he didn’t commit. Instead, it digs down into the greater and more profound aspects of the minority experience in a racially charged society. “This play is hard to produce in the sense that it’s hard to generate audience sympathy for the lead character,” Ellis says. “Bigger doesn’t know how to accept the chance he is given.”
The directing style: Ellis segregated his actors by race during the rehearsal process, making them sit apart from each other and treating them as two separate groups. It’s a Method Acting technique. (He used a similar approach in the Fresno State production of “A Soldier’s Play.”) It is a controversial approach, he acknowledges, but one that is important and necessary. “I needed to give them a sense of what it was like in 1939. America was completely segregated. In order to perform in Bigger Thomas’ world, they need to get a taste of that.”
Details: “Native Son” opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 27, in the Woods Theatre, Fresno State. Runs through Nov. 4. Tickets are $17, $15 seniors, $10 students.
‘Day of the Dead’
If you’ve never attended one of Arte Américas’ annual “Cala Gala” celebrations, you’re missing out on a wonderful civic event. It takes place at Eaton Plaza in downtown Fresno and includes entertainment, community altars, food and craft vendors, face painting and more. Here’s the schedule:
This is a family-friendly event with no alcohol served.
Details: 4-9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, Eaton Plaza, 2400 Fulton St. Tickets are $4, with kids 3 and under free. You’re encouraged to bring your own chairs.
Other theater openings
Coarsegold’s Golden Chain Theatre opens the musical revue “Another Openin’, Another Show,” celebrating 100 years of musical theater, on Friday, Oct. 27. A description:
For those of you who enjoyed “I Can’t Believe That Didn’t Win a TONY!”, you will love “Another Openin’, Another Show!” as we take you through dozens of your musical theatre favorites across the past century. Written by James Mierkey and Jennifer Piccolotti, Directed by George and Melinda Rich. Rated PG.
Details: “Another Openin’, Another Show,” opens 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 27, Golden Chain Theatre, 42130 Hwy 41, Oakhurst. Runs through Nov. 19. Tickets are $8-$15.
And the Visalia Players opens “Driving Miss Daisy,” about an aging Jewish woman’s fight to stay independent and the relationship she develops with her African-American chauffeur. Clarence Cryer and Irene Morse star. James Ward has a preview article in the Visalia Times-Delta about the show.
Details: “Driving Miss Daisy,” opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 27, Ice House Theatre, 410 E. Race Ave., Visalia. Tickets are $16, $12 students.
Choral music aficionados, take note: The touring National Chamber Choir of Armenia is making a stop in Fresno. The concert is co-sponsored by the Fresno State Armenian Studies Program and the Hamazkayin Taniel Varoujan Chapter of Fresno. A description:
NCCA is a professional choir consisting of 35 musicians. Their repertoire includes the works of Gabrielli, Bach, Brahms, Vasks, Schnittke and other great composers. SCCA brilliantly performs works of Komitas, as well as works of contemporary Armenian composers. Over the years the choir has presented audiences with world-premieres featuring the works of Tigran Mansourian, David Halajian, Edward Hayrapetian, and many others.
Details: 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29, Fresno State Concert Hall. Tickets are $20, students free with valid I.D.
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