Photo by Geoffrey Wade Photography

Native Son at Antaeus Theatre

A Review by Keri Tombazian

April 24, 2018

Antaeus Theatre Company was wise to put award-winning Director Andi Chapman at the helm of the Southern California premiere of Nambi E. Kelley’s Native Son, adapted from Richard Wright’s 1940 novel.  It is a heavy load to bear and Chapman, as she has so often done, took up the work with vision.  Her blending of post-modern theatrical projections with old-school theatrical devices of minimal props and actor-mime is a lesson in harmony. 

Richard Wright’s blistering story of Bigger Thomas (Jon Chaffin), a young black man busting under the racism and poverty of 1939 America, tells the true stuff of that oppression: that a birthright of fear, slavery, and violence crushes and perverts the heart of humanity—and not simply that of the victim, but also, that of the perpetrator. There, in the hatred and blindness, they are less like humans and more like monsters.  

In its debut, the book was groundbreaking, scandalous, and brave.  Kelley’s one-act is brutal, harsh, and relentless.  Complex in structure, cinematic in style, it delivers cruelty and ignorance, desperation and despair: human characteristics all worthy of artistic exploration and told here with the benefit of excellent production design.  But it is a difficult (nearly) ninety minutes.  And while Chapman’s director’s note in the program begins with “Empathy is everything,” Kelley’s decision to “not shy away from,” but to “paint the brutality” of the story in an unrelenting torrent from start to finish, leaves the audience to defend itself from the onslaught, and the road to empathy is lost.  It is not because Bigger is unworthy of empathy, but because there is no room to catch your breath, no journey into the complexities of each character, no room to breathe.  Empathy needs oxygen.

The two characters that evoke the most empathy are the least one-dimensional: Bigger’s mother, Hannah (Victoria Platt); and his girlfriend Bessie (Mildred Marie Langford). In them Platt finds all of the woe and wish of a mother on the brink of an unthinkable abyss, and Langford shows every sorrowful color of despondency and despair (Langford does excellent double duty as Bigger’s sister, Vera.)  

Chaffin, as Bigger, and Noel Arthur, as the Black Rat (Bigger’s double consciousness/inner voice), play in perfect timing side-by-side throughout. Arthur plays like jazz to Chaffin’s tortured symphony. 

Antaeus Theatre Company is a community of accomplished actors, producers, and designers with a rich history of bringing top-drawer productions of the Classics. Producing Native Son answers a thoughtful query of how new works can be Classic by virtue of their enduring themes and relevance to the struggles of today.

Native Son runs now through June 3rd, 2018.  Get your tickets here