Antaeus Theatre Company continues its captivating season with the premiere of a visceral, groundbreaking stage adaption of Richard Wright’s racially charged novel, Native Son. Andi Chapman directs Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of this story of oppression, freedom and justice on stage at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center in Glendale with performances continuing through June 3.
Set in 1930s Chicago, where opportunities for African-American men are elusive, Kelley’s adaptation focuses on the inner workings of the protagonist’s mind as a series of unleashed events violently and irrevocably seal his fate.
Jon Chaffin stars as Bigger Thomas, suffocating in rat-infested poverty on Chicago’s South Side, with Noel Arthur as “The Black Rat” — the manifestation of Bigger’s double consciousness. When a job as the family chauffeur brings him into the white world of wealthy Mrs. Dalton (Gigi Bermingham), her free-thinking daughter, Mary (Ellis Greer) and Mary’s Communist boyfriend, Jan (Matthew Grondin), circumstances spiral out of control. The ensemble also features Mildred Marie Langford, Ned Mochel, Victoria Platt and Brandon Rachal. (Unlike most Antaeus productions, Native Son is single-cast.)
Double consciousness, according to W.E.B. Du Bois, refers to the effects of white racism — to “the sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
“This is the story of a young black man’s life in 1939 America, who from birth is compelled to pass through a tragic gauntlet of oppression,” states Chapman. “The play moves like a runaway train. The tension starts at the top and ratchets up from there.”
“Everything is told from from Bigger’s point of view, through his lens,” explains Kelley. “The adaptation is an exploration of the concept of double consciousness as it relates to the concept of one’s ability to fly or be free. Think of it as a mind-map.”
One of the earliest successful attempts to explain the racial divide in America in terms of the social conditions imposed on African Americans by the dominant white society, “Native Son” was an immediate best-seller when it was published by the Book-of-the-Month Club on March 1, 1940. In his 1963 essay “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Irving Howe wrote: “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever… [it] brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear, and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture.” The novel’s first stage adaptation, written by Wright and Paul Green, was directed by Orson Welles and ran on Broadway for three years.
“The birth of bigger Thomas goes back to my childhood,” Wright wrote. “But there was not just one Bigger, but many of them, more than I could account and more than you suspect… The Bigger Thomases were the only Negroes I know who consistently violated the Jim Crow laws of the South and got away with it, at least for a sweet brief spell. Eventually, the whites who restricted their lives made them pay a terrible price. They were shot, hanged, maimed, lynched, and generally hounded until they were either dead or their spirits broken.”
Performances of Native Son continue on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m., and Mondays at 8 p.m. (dark Monday, May 28) through June 3. There will be one additional Thursday evening performance on May 31 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 on Thursdays, Fridays and Mondays, and $34 on Saturdays and Sundays.
The Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center is located at 110 East Broadway, Glendale, CA 91205 (between N. Brand Blvd. and Maryland Ave.). The first 90 minutes of parking is free, then $2 per hour, in Glendale Marketplace garage located at 120 S. Maryland Ave (between Broadway and Harvard). The theater is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. For reservations and information, call 818-506-1983 or go to www.antaeus.org.
Antaeus is a cooperative theater ensemble founded to empower the actor and to bring classical theater to Southern California. The company exists to create a family of artists and audiences and is dedicated to exploring stories with enduring themes. Taking their company name from the Titan who gained strength by touching the Earth, Antaeus members — many of whom are familiar to film and television audiences — regain their creative strength by returning to the wellspring of their craft: live theater. Members of the company span a wide range of age, ethnicity and experience; they have performed on Broadway, at major regional theaters across the country, in film, television and on local stages, and are the recipients of numerous accolades and awards.