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Troubling “Native Son” Part of Kirk Douglas Theatre’s Block Party

In the mood for some in-your-face racial drama? Richard Wright’s Native Son has been generating controversy since it was first published in 1940. Through two editions of the book, three film adaptations, and three stage versions, Native Son has presented a disturbing look at race in America.

Brandon Rachal (Buddy), Mildred Marie Langford (Vera), Victoria Platt (Hannah), Jon Chaffin (Bigger) and Ned Mochel (Britten). Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Currently, you can view a 2019 take on the story on HBO, with a screenplay adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks…or you can head to the Kirk Douglas Theatre for a provocative restaging, penned in 2014 by Nambi E. Kelley.

The play, which runs through April 28th, originated at Glendale’s Antaeus Theatre. It was selected as part of the Kirk Douglas Theatre’s 2019 Block Party, an annual event spotlighting standout shows from L.A.’s “intimate theatre scene.” (Previous shows this season came from Hollywood’s Theatre of Note and Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz.)

In this version of Native Son, protagonist Bigger Thomas (Jon Chaffin) is shadowed by a character of playwright Kelley’s creation, the Black Rat (Noel Arthur). Part alter-ego, part father figure, the Black Rat gives voice to Bigger’s thoughts. The bifurcation of Bigger allows action to take place simultaneously in different parts of the stage. While the approach is jarring, it does help to move things along.

Noel Arthur (The Black Rat) and Jon Chaffin (Bigger). Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Like the original Native Son, the Antaeus’ version is set on the south side of Chicago in the 1930s. The Thomas family has lost its father to a shooting during a protest and riot. Bigger’s mother Hannah (Victoria Platt) is struggling to feed her children and Bigger, age 20, takes a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy family, the Daltons.

Bigger is caught between the rigid social structure that defines his servitude and the openness of Dalton daughter Mary (Ellis Greer) and her boyfriend Jan (Matthew Grondin), Communists who want to do away with the confines of the class system. Bigger veers between distrustful and resentful, enraged and desperate as a series of ever more horrifying events play out.

Ellis Greer (Mary), Jon Chaffin (Bigger) and Matthew Grondin (Jan). Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Bad decisions mount and Bigger ends up on the run, through a blizzard that, like Mrs. Dalton’s cat named “Whitey,” overplays the theme of being black in a white world. The play is harrowing, but well-played by the talented cast, who were rewarded with a standing ovation opening night. They help to overcome the hopelessness of the world of repression and opportunity lost that defines Native Son.

Native Son runs through April 28th at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City. The play is 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets, click here.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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