Nearly 75 years after it was first published, two things remain shocking about Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. One is the story itself, an exercise in empathy centered on the character of Bigger Thomas. The young man experiences an emotional awakening after he commits a crime that, because he’s black, has always been expected of him in a racist society: He kills a white woman.
The other is how urgently contemporary the book still feels. Set in the segregated South Side of Chicago, Native Son describes an atmosphere of racial mistrust that continues to permeate the city’s neighborhoods. Seret Scott, a New York stage director who is overseeing an adaptation this fall at Court Theatre, likens the insidious problem to allergies: “After a while, you don’t notice them anymore, even though they continue to make you sneeze. It’s a part of your life.”
Native Son has been staged before, including a version by Wright and the playwright Paul Green in 1941. But Scott, 65, is directing a world premiere with a script by Nambi E. Kelley, a Chicago actor and playwright. For Kelley, 41 (who was commissioned by American Blues Theater, which is collaborating with Court Theatre), it’s a good match. The book has been a favorite of hers since she was a child growing up in Bronzeville, just blocks from where Native Son takes place (and not far, for that matter, from Court). She attended the same grade school as Lorraine Hansberry, whose 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun explores similar terrain: the pernicious effects of Chicago segregation.
“When I was a little girl in that neighborhood, I can’t tell you how suffocated I felt,” says Kelley about the lack of opportunities. She also remembers the rats, which figure into Wright’s book—in the first scene, Bigger kills one in his family’s shoddy one-room apartment—and even more prominently into Kelley’s adaptation. In her version, the rodent is its own character. “The rat represents how Bigger sees himself through the eyes of people who see him and condemn him,” says Kelley, who consulted with Julia Wright, Richard Wright’s daughter and literary executor, on the project. “The rat is him, but it’s him through the lens of whiteness.”
The rat also answers a challenge of bringing the book to the stage, providing a way to dramatize the inner workings of Bigger’s mind. (The character will be played by Eric Lynch, who starred in the Goodman’s Buzzer earlier this year; Bigger is played by Jerod Haynes, who was Walter in TimeLine Theatre’s well-reviewed 2013 production of A Raisin in the Sun.) “It’s essentially an identity play,” Kelley explains, “of him discarding the thing that he’s told he is so he can figure out who he is.”
Kelley says that in her interpretation of the story Bigger is able to cast off the malign vision—the rat’s vision—and see himself through his own eyes. Of course, this is only after he’s sentenced to death; it’s a dubious sort of freedom.
Go Native Son runs September 11 to October 12 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. For info, courttheatre.org.
WATCH Behind the scenes of Native Son at Court Theatre.