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.
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.
In today’s United States, the overt, state-sanctioned bigotry has been tamped down. How much progress has really been made, however? The subtle and insidious message of Nambi E. Kelley’s modern adaptation of Richard Wright’s groundbreaking (and, to this day, supremely troubling) novel is this: Greater U.S. society hasn’t really changed the way it looks at the black male body. And the cumulative impact of being on the receiving end of that scrutiny, of constantly being looked at as the “other,” to never being able to truly blend in, is enough to cause some people to snap.
At least that’s the impression I get watching this production as a white man. As someone who can’t really put himself into the shoes of a person of color, in fact, this production is one of the few ways I can at least be exposed to an approximation of that experience. In Kelley’s bold realignment of Wright’s tale, she amplifies the novel’s psychological underpinnings, plays with the chronology and chops up the narrative into a series of percussive vignettes. The material feels fresh and relevant. This is no dusty period piece.
One of the things that makes the original novel so compelling is the complexity of Bigger, a 20-year-old growing up on Chicago’s South Side, who early in the narrative kills a wealthy young white woman, Mary Dalton (played with a brisk likability by Teya Juarez). Mary is the daughter of his employer. Bigger kills her in a moment of panic.
The novel (and play) does not consume itself with the question of Bigger’s innocence. (In the play, the killing is one of the first things we witness). Nor do we spend much time debating the degree to which Mary’s death is accidental. In Bigger’s mind, he is already condemned: He is black, the young woman is white, and he knows he will pay with his life if he is discovered.
But this also is not the easy-to-sympathize case of a noble man making one terrible mistake. Bigger is in many ways, in fact, an unsympathetic character: burdened with a terrible temper, prone to violence, filled with a languid disregard for those around him, ready and willing to hurt those who care for him to save his own skin.
To capture the way the novel gets into Bigger’s head, of the way he feels his world closing in on him, the playwright creates an alter ego: a character named Black Rat (played by the excellent Jalen Stewart) who offers a running narrative of Bigger’s interior world. Whereas Bigger might reply to his new white employer, the wealthy Mrs. Dalton (Emily Kearn), with a terse “yes, ma’am,” his inner monologue as delivered by Black Rat is often a colorful stream of wisecracks, pithy observations and steadying advice. This interaction between the two Biggers — one the public persona prone to fits of anger, the other his deeply buried voice of reason and survival — that gives the play such a charge.
Ellis directs his student actors in a determined manner, with the short vignettes coming in a steady burst. (Regina Harris’ assertive sound design helped smooth the transitions between scenes, but those shifts often still seemed too long, something that could have been mitigated in Rene Nielson’s scenic design, and I did not care for the habit of actors beginning their dialogue while still in the dark.) Liz Waldman’s lighting design sets a moody, noirish mood much of the time, as befits Bigger’s muddled psychological state. In fact, I thought that shadowy effect could have been even more prominent, with some scenes playing as too bright and realistic.
Jana Price’s period costumes and hair design bring a sharp, unified look to the proceedings.
While I found it easy on opening night to follow the abrupt shifts in chronology, I’d also just reread parts of the book. I imagine it would be harder for an audience member going in cold. I’d suggest at least a quick read of the novel’s synopsis beforehand.
Stewart, as Bigger’s alter ego, is a standout, often wisecracking but also frighteningly somber at key moments. He helps show us Bigger’s anxiety and paranoia as it deepens. Arium Andrews, as Bigger’s long-suffering mother, is very good, giving us a wide emotional range and emphatic stage presence. Jimmy Haynie, as Bigger’s younger brother, and Ben Garcia, as Mary’s Communist-sympathizer boyfriend, also have notable bits.
Ellis offers a wry twist on gender roles, too. The character of Detective Britten (played with hard-boiled flair by Chlorissa Prothro) is meant to be played by a man. Hearing the character’s racist and demeaning comments come from a woman adds another level of complexity for the audience.
This is ultimately Bigger’s story, however. Slack has some nice moments in a difficult role as his character flits from resigned weariness to manic fear (which is sometimes played too broadly). The hardest thing for an actor to pull off in this role is also what makes the play a challenge for audiences as well: the sense of pride that Bigger feels — yes, pride — that with this killing he was able to get away with striking a blow at white privilege and supremacy. That theme in the book is surprising and uncomfortable. But it’s also eye-opening.
Ellis is unflinching, too, in his direction when it comes to the theme of surveillance. As the police close in on Bigger, we feel his sense of earthbound entrapment. (People of color do not have the opportunity to fly in both a literal sense — Bigger would love to be an airplane pilot — and metaphorically as well.) At the root is the idea of gazing at the black male body not as individuals but as archetypes: thief, rapist, murderer.
A rape scene between Bigger and his beleaguered girlfriend, Bessie (Desiree Houston), is as stark and disturbing as anything I’ve seen on a Fresno State stage. In that extended moment, staged with brutal realism, we truly become voyeurs. “Native Son” can take you places some people would probably rather not go. (Some, alas, are already there.) But it’s an important and necessary journey.
“Native Son,” 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 31, through Saturday, Nov. 4, Woods Theatre, Fresno State. Tickets are $17, $15 seniors, $10 students.
Donald’s picks: Fresno State’s new production of “Native Son”
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