"Art hurts," wrote the poet Gwendolyn Brooks. "Art urges voyages — and it's easier to stay home. " Staying home is always an option...
“Art hurts,” wrote the poet Gwendolyn Brooks. “Art urges voyages — and it’s easier to stay home.”
Staying home is always an option, yes. But Intiman Theatre’s new dramatization of the blistering Richard Wright novel “Native Son” is worth venturing out for — even if it scorches.
Novelist Wright was, like Brooks, a black Chicagoan. And “Native Son,” a surprise 1940 best-seller, led its white readers into bleak terrain most had no map or compass for: underclass, urban, black America, a breeding ground for aimless and volatile young men like Bigger Thomas.
Bringing to the Intiman stage Bigger’s story — which is really the story of the gap between two starkly contrasting Americas — has been a rough ride itself. Seattle playwright Cheryl L. West adapted “Native Son” for Intiman, but withdrew her script due to a last-minute snafu over stage rights and credits.
Most Read Entertainment Stories
- Your guide to summer 2022 outdoor theater and performances in the Seattle area
- Olympic gold medalist Nathan Chen talks Olympics, future ahead of Stars on Ice Seattle stop
- 'Jeopardy' savors run of super champions after host stumbles
- Carlson blames Buffalo massacre on Biden, mental illness, ignores race conspiracy theory he repeats on Fox
- Moira Macdonald’s list of must-read books for summer 2022
With only a few weeks left before the premiere, director Kent Gash whipped up his own treatment of “Native Son.”
One shouldn’t expect much from a play assembled in such haste. But creative work devised on the spot, in the heat of the moment, can have a blazing immediacy that ameliorates some flaws.
So it is with Gash’s vivid, absorbing “Native Son,” which has an imposing Bigger in Ato Essandoh, a laudable ensemble, and an imaginative visual palette that evokes a waking nightmare.
“Native Son,” by Richard Wright, adapted by Kent Gash, Tuesdays-Sundays through Nov. 18, Intiman Theatre, Seattle Center; $10-$46 (206-269-1900 or www.intiman.org).
Note: This show contains nudity and violence.
Gash’s script passes Wright’s narration from actor to actor, uses the entire stage and employs William H. Grant III’s lighting design to superb effect — particularly an unforgettable image of a fiery furnace bearing secrets.
On Edward E. Haynes Jr.’s urban-rustic, split-level set, “Native Son” begins as the novel does: with a blaring alarm clock going off. We’re in the one-room slum dwelling shared by the desperately poor Thomas clan: Bigger and siblings (played by Lukas Shadair and Felicia V. Loud) and their care-worn widowed mother (Myra Lucretia Taylor).
The script could lose some of the domestic wrangling, but from there “Native Son” takes off like a freight train racing hell-bent through a long, dark tunnel.
In short takes, Bigger’s mercurial nature and hair-trigger temper are revealed in a violent pool-parlor episode, and a sultry encounter with his girlfriend, Bessie (also played by Loud).
So is Bigger’s profound discomfort during a job interview with Mr. Dalton (Ken Grantham), a white tycoon who offers this eighth-grade dropout a menial job he’s grateful for.
Bigger’s unease intensifies when Dalton’s pretty, liberal daughter, Mary (Carol Roscoe) and her Marxist boyfriend Jan (MJ Sieber) take him on a drunken joy ride. Though well-meant, their instant familiarity with Bigger is dangerously patronizing.
When Bigger finds himself alone with the drunken Mary, in her bedroom, and fears he’ll be discovered, his survival mode kicks in. (In the 1930s, such a racial breech could still lead to a lynching in some states.) The unplanned murder that follows leads to an inept cover-up, an escape attempt, a second impromptu killing and, finally, Bigger’s trial and punishment.
Gash dwells on the final (and weakest) section of the novel, at the expense of the earlier plot and further character development.
The script could use another draft or two, and the show more rehearsal time. But “Native Son” still has a visceral impact that’s hard to match. Often it’s difficult to take your eyes off Essandoh, whose Bigger is a pressure cooker of fear, bravado and confusion.
Taylor also impresses, as the anguished mother whose meek piety spelled survival for her generation. And Loud fills in the sketchy Bessie by crooning a heartsick blues song. (Chic Street Man’s original guitar music seems too light and lilting for this show.)
“Native Son” raises the question: Why should we care about a thug like Bigger? Or let him off as a social victim?
Neither Wright, nor Gash, defends or justifies Bigger’s violence. But “Native Son” can’t help bring to mind modern urban realities, twisted and reshaped by political rhetoric, governmental failures and deep-rooted American myths about equal opportunity.
When a character observes that “white folks and black folks are strangers,” that still rings a bell. An alarm bell, and one that can’t be turned off so easily.
Misha Berson: email@example.com