Yale Repertory Theatre’s moody, imaginative “Native Son” takes the classic novel by Richard Wright and creates its own distinctive mix of film noir, urban realism and social satire.
Nambi E. Kelley’s script respects Wright’s staccato slang prose style by not trying to replicate it. The stage “Native Son” creates a tone-poem language all its own. It also expands on the inner monologues of the book’s ill-fated African-American protagonist Bigger Thomas by essentially having two people play him. The main Bigger is Jerod Haynes, whom we see joshing with his brother Buddy, confiding in his girlfriend Bessie and deferring to his wealthy white employers, among other distinct voices. The other Bigger in the play takes his name from the famous scene in the book where the Thomas family slays a big black rat in their apartment. The Black Rat, played by Jason Bowen, is Bigger’s conscience, but also articulates his anger and confusion when he gets caught in a swirl of violent acts and hostile reactions.
Somehow Kelley, director Seret Scott and a nine-person cast distill Wright’s novel into 90 intermission-less minutes that are all action. The play never gets too intellectual or literary. It appreciates Wright’s book for its intensity, refusing to slow down. The way the plot is encapsulated into brief bursts of dialogue and lots of movement makes “Native Son” play almost like a modern musical or chamber opera. There is even a little music in it, though much of Frederick Kennedy’s sound design consists of radio-theater-style sound effects like car doors opening or fires raging.
The novel “Native Son” is often compared to “Crime and Punishment” and other works by Fyodor Dostoevsky. That Russian novelist has been a touchstone for the Yale Rep since at least 1974, when Christopher Durang and Albert Innaurato debuted their “The Idiots Karamazov” and Andrzej Wajda visited to direct “The Possessed.” The next show at the Rep, “Field Guide” by the Austin, Texas, experimental troupe Rude Mechs, also takes “The Brothers Karamazov” apart. Bill Camp starred in Robert Woodruff’s post-modern take on Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground” in 2009. The play “Native Son” is a fine addition to that lineage. It examines the inner workings of a murderer’s mind in a fresh, theatrical, highly entertaining yet thought-provoking manner.
Bigger may seem to be trapped by choices he made in life, but Wright makes clear that his situation was really created by social realities beyond his control. Bigger has lost before he has begun.That’s a hard thing to communicate in a stage production, but this play does it.
Scott (well known to Connecticut theatergoers for her staging of “The Joy Luck Club” at Long Wharf Theatre in 1997, “Raisin in the Sun” at Hartford Stage in 2006 and “Intimate Apparel” at Westport Playhouse) creates an overlapping collage of visual provocations, using bodies and voices where other directors might settle for projections or props. The liveliness of this show can’t be understated. When a jungle movie is mentioned, we get a lithe actress in an animal skin straddling a railing. When fights occur, they’re full-bodied balletic blow-by-blow eruptions. Dialogue is repeated for emphasis. Some lines elide into similar-sounding one, as when a cry to “Stop the car!” is followed by “Stop the crap!”
Scott has directed, and Haynes has starred in, every one of the three productions that Kelley’s “Native Son” has had so far — first at the Court Theatre in Chicago, then at the Marin Theatre Company in California, and now here. Yet this is not a remounting or a co-production. Yale Rep’s has a new set (a maze of fire escapes designed by Yale School of Drama student Ryan Emens), a mostly new cast (including several YSD students and a couple of alumni) and costumes by Katie Touart that magically fit all the shifting moods of the show. There’s a consistency to “Native Son” that sets it on a special level of literary adaptations. It shows you things in the novel that you may have missed from just reading it.
NATIVE SON by Nambi E. Kelley, directed by Seret Scott, plays through Dec 16 at Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $90. 203-432-1234 and yalerep.org.