Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Native Son
Lifeline Theatre
By Christine Malcom

Also see Karen's reviews of On the Twentieth Century and Turret

The Cast
Photo by Jackie Jasperson
Lifeline Theatre's staging of Native Son marks the tenth anniversary of Nambi E. Kelley's adaptation of the Richard Wright novel. If there is a company in Chicago suited to staging something so difficult to translate from the page, it is certainly Lifeline, and Kelley's vision for the work rings very true to the novel without trying to do the impossible (and the unwise) by rendering it beat for beat. Moreover, Ilesa Duncan's skillful direction makes productive use of a talented cast and design team. The end result is successful to a great degree, and yet there are things about the source material that may simply be unadaptable.

The most ingenuous aspect of Kelley's adaptation is the creation of the character of Black Rat. In the hands of someone less attuned to Wright's novel and the experiences it draws from, this character might have emerged as either the better angel or the devil on the shoulder of Bigger Thomas. But Black Rat is nothing so simple: he is Bigger's internal monologue, frenetic and calm by turns, practical and fatally impulsive in equal measure. He might be the version of Bigger who makes the choices that allow him to string together a life that extends into adulthood, or he might be the force that propels the young man to his inevitable doom.

What doesn't work quite as well (or not as consistently well, perhaps) in the adaptation is Kelley's view of the play's action as taking place during "a split second in Bigger's mind, when he runs from the crime, remembers, imagines two cold and snowy winter days in December 1939 and beyond." This conception does free Kelley up to cut and condense, which is an imperative, given that Wright's novel is both dense and sprawling.

Most of the cuts and rearrangements of events work well. Through frantic interleaving of Bigger's recent and more distant memories, Kelley continuously ratchets up the tension even as the audience is drawn deeper into the main character's experience, but in compressing the novel to ninety minutes, this technique sometimes becomes a bit of a blunt instrument.

The issues with the approach to pacing are sometimes practical. As is typical of Lifeline, the production makes excellent use of its space. Regina Garcia's scenic design captures the precarity of Chicago's Black south side with wooden structures that fill the space from stage right to stage left and floor to ceiling. Most of the set is given over to Bigger's movement through the neighborhood's cramped spaces, yet a stack of two platforms downstage right creates a sense of capacious opulence for the Daltons. Garcia's work is impressive, but there is no getting around the fact that wood paired with a great deal of rapid movement by the cast members is loud and often distracts from Kelley's apparent intentions and Duncan's tight blocking.

Other elements of the design do successfully take up much of the slack. The projections by Eme Ospina-López direct the audience's attention in through windows, making them voyeurs and accomplices. In conjunction with Branden Marble's lighting, Ospina-López also occasionally splashes violence and horror over the play's entire landscape. The end result is successful navigation of the territory between trauma porn and insisting that the audience bear witness not just to Bigger's experiences, but of his family, his lover Bessie, and Chicago's Black community.

The performances of Tamarus Harvell (Bigger) and James Lewis (Black Rat) have to be considered together. Harvell plays Bigger's performative masculinity as well as his adolescent fear and grief with equal power. Lewis, in turn, adopts an affect that is often completely flat and dead-eyed as he urges Bigger to calm and gather himself and act in a way that passes for sensible under the horrific circumstances not just of Mary's death, but of Bigger's moment-to-moment life. Simultaneously, though, Lewis conveys devastating, tightly wound despair.

Ashli Funches' performance as both Bessie, Bigger's lover and second victim, and as his younger sister Vera work in similarly effective conversation. Vera is an unnervingly normal younger sister. Paired with Bessie's oscillation between hopeful lucidity and drunken resignation, Funches manages to convey a kind of tortured travel between points in time on a single character's life trajectory.

As Bigger's mother Hanna, Camille Dawkins breathes life into one of the characters that the novel leaves somewhat distressingly flat and stereotypical. Kelley's changes here are rather major, stripping out most of the material related to Hanna's faith and its relationship to her passive acceptance of the conditions of life. Although there's certainly room to question how much adaptation may be too much, Dawkins' performance settles the issue within the confines of this production. She is certainly a value add.

Kelley also collapses the members of Bigger's gang into the character of Buddy, his younger brother. As with Dawkins, the performance of Dairyon Bolden makes the case for this choice. In Bolden's hands, Buddy's simplistic hero worship of his brother becomes a parallel struggle for agency and another version of the struggle to understand what the world will allow a Black man to be.

The adaptation and production are quite rightly most interested in the Black characters, but the performances are, overall, strong. Nick Trengove manages to make Jan, Mary's Communist boyfriend, a complicated and sympathetic character without flattening him to some simplistic philosophical ideal. As the private detective Britten, Gabe Fries stands in for reactionary whiteness that cannot decide which challenge to its privilege it despises more; this role is necessarily more shorthand than anything, but Fries embraces the task and accomplishes it well.

Although Kelley's adaptation does a great deal to address some of the complications of the Black women in Wright's novel, neither Mrs. Dalton nor Mary benefits much from the adaptation's fixes. Mandy Walsh is appropriately insufferable and condescending as Mrs. Dalton. She makes much of a relatively thin character, but some of the writing is simply rather awkward here. For example, in opening the play with Mary's death, the fact that Mrs. Dalton is blind is not clearly communicated, and the added backstory explaining her blindness as the product of her drinking during her Prohibition-Era misspent youth does not add much depth. Laura Nelson does good work as Mary, but the character here is especially broadly drawn, not leaving her much to work with. But these are minor issues, and Kelley's attention, as well of the attention of the adaptation, Duncan, and her cast is focused where it ought to be.

Native Son runs through June 30, 2024, at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Avenue, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit or call 773-761-4477.