Review: A Powerfully Resonant “Native Son” at Kirk Douglas

Jon Chaffin in “Native Son” at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre. Antaeus Theatre Company’s production runs through April 28 as part of Block Party 2019. For more information, please visit Press Contact: / (213) 972-7376. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Richard Wright’s groundbreaking novel of oppression, injustice and racial tension comes to life brilliantly in this timely adaptation by Nambi E. Kelley’s staging of Native Son as part of its Block Party celebrating L.A. theatre. Not only is it a Grade-A example of literary adaptations, it’s also a play that resonates with our times and the ever-troubled American race relations that define them.

L-R: Ellis Greer, Jon Chaffin and Matthew Grondin in “Native Son.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Bigger Thomas played by Jon Chaffin (Lucifer, Hawaii Five-O) struggles to create a place for himself in a world full of prejudice that has left him with few opportunities. This is the story of a frustrated, angry, and poorly educated black man who drifts around the seedy South Side of Chicago in the 1930’s until he finally finds work chauffeuring a wealthy, liberal white family. On his first evening of work, Bigger drives their daughter Mary (Ellis Greer, Three Days in the Country, The Goodbye Girl) and her Communist boyfriend Jan (Matthew Grondin, Rabbit Hole, Friends Like These) around town while the two of them get drunk and introduce him to Communism. When they arrive home, Bigger carries the intoxicated Mary to her bedroom as he keeps fighting her sexual advances and finally becomes aroused while putting her to bed and they begin to kiss passionately. When her blind mother played by Gigi Berminham (Days of Our Lives, Jane the Virgin) comes to the bedroom door, Bigger panics and attempts to silence Mary’s drunken laughter by covering her face with a pillow and accidentally smothers her to death. He burns her corpse in the furnace, desperately tries to destroy evidence of the crime, and frames Mary’s boyfriend for it. Bigger’s odyssey through America’s racial landscape, one of gross injustice, blatant prejudice, and a fateful ending, kicks into high gear.

L-R: Brandon Rachal, Mildred Marie Langford, Victoria Platt, John Chaffin, and Ned Mochel in “Native Son.” Photo: Craig Schwartz

Bigger introduces us to his world — his mother Hannah played by Victoria Platt (All My Children, Guiding Light), his brother, Buddy, played by Brandon Rachal (Othello, Twelfth Night), and his sister, Mildred, played by Marie Langford (Rogue Machine, Commune) who shines in a dual role as his girlfriend, reminiscent of Regina King; and then there’s also his inner voice, The Black Rat, played by Noel Arthur (ER, Shameless); well dressed and upright, he speaks Bigger’s thoughts, functioning as vanity, self-hatred, voice-of-reason, conscience – all fused. These incredibly talented ensemble ushers us through one of the most intense 90 minutes in theatre today. We live in a time of supposed racial progress, an era in which segregated fountains, and lynchings are a thing of the past yet voting disenfranchisement, shocking income disparity, and racially charged killings are still commonplace to an alarming degree. Native Son is a bold awakening to what still lurks, and CTGLA is to be commended for confronting such controversial material in such an honest, unapologetic manner.

— Victor Riobo

Native Son playing at CTGLA Kirk Douglas Theatre through 28th. Get tickets HERE.