± Through Oct. 19
± Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis
± Tickets: $45-$65
± Info: (773) 753-4472; http://www.CourtTheatre.org
± Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
The program for Court Theatre’s ambitious, strongly envisioned but problematic stage adaptation of “Native Son” — Richard Wright’s 1940 novel about Bigger Thomas, a young black man consumed by racism and violence — contains a map of a section of Chicago’s South Side dubbed “The Black Belt” in the first half of the 20th century.
The map pinpoints where Wright himself lived; the childhood home of Nambi E. Kelley, the immensely gifted actress and writer who crafted this world premiere adaptation; several of the sites mentioned in the story, and Court Theatre itself, which stands just blocks from the action. What it cannot label are the many things that have occurred since the publication of Wright’s novel: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the emergence of a college-educated black middle class (including the vast pool of highly trained artists in this show, from Kelley, to her accomplished director, Seret Scott, and her actors), and yes, the election of a certain president of the United States.
Of course any thinking person can point to enduring poverty, joblessness, high crime and incarceration rates and all the rest. But you really have to wonder: Is this look at a work that depicts a society of more than 75 years ago (earlier, actually, as “Native Son” is set during the 1930s Depression), and which, by its very production, suggests it is meant to synch with the current conversation about race — really helpful? Inadvertently or not, Wright’s work, and this production, perpetuate stereotypes (both black and white) in ways that seem dated, or at least incomplete.
Kelley has framed Wright’s story of the poison of internalized racism in a modern way. Bigger (Jerod Haynes, intense, wired, physically fleet), the tormented central character who ends up murdering two women, is in constant conversation with his alter ego, The Black Rat (a coolly sinister Eric Lynch), so that he appears as a Hamlet of the underclass. Like Walter Younger, the restless but far less violent man in “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s play of less than two decades later, he is thwarted by life. He dreams of being a pilot (a profession wholly out of the question for him at the time), and ends up with a job as a chauffeur for the Daltons, a rich white family whose patriarch (James Leaming) also happens to be the slumlord for the building where Bigger, his God-fearing mother, Hannah (Shanesia Davis), and his two younger siblings live in one room.
The job is where the real trouble begins. Dalton and his blind, patrician wife (the haunting Carmen Roman), have a debutante daughter, Mary (the superb Nora Fiffer), a ridiculous wannabe liberal who flirts with communism by way of her activist boyfriend, Jan (Jeff Blim). During an alcohol-fueled night in the black section of town, she comes on to Bigger, who will end up smothering her (echoes of Shakespeare’s Othello and Desdemona), and disposing of her body in the most horrific way. Later, he will turn on his black girlfriend, Bessie (Tracey N. Bonner, in the production’s most realistic and moving scenes), and again engage in a savage act of murder that robs him of all potential empathy. By this point he comes off as just a brute psychopath.
The powerful physicality of the Court production, combined with the nightmarish aura of Regina Garcia’s mazelike set and Marc Stubblefield’s hellish lighting, draw you into the story. But Bigger emerges as more of a victimizer than a victim. And I don’t believe that was the aim here.