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Theater Review: “Native Son"

“Native Son” plays through November 19, 2016.
Photo credit:
Jim Carmody

Two big, black rats figure in UCSD Theatre’s production of Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s “Native Son.”

One has four legs and is caught and killed by protagonist Bigger Thomas (Terrance White) at the beginning of the show as a metaphor for the public view of African Americans: the one that views people of color with a mixture of contempt and scorn, who must be kept in their place.

The second is Bigger’s two-legged alter ego, who shadows Bigger and represents his private self.

The Big Black Rat, dressed in classy clothes and played with resignation by DeLeon Dallas, works to keep Bigger alive in this toxic atmosphere. He describes the situation this way: “We all two people but you look in the mirror, you only see one: what they tell you you is.”

Bigger is 20 and lives in poverty in Chicago with his mother Hannah (Kimberly Monks) and younger siblings Buddy (Yonatan Gebeyehu) and Vera (Zora Howard). He dreams of becoming an airplane pilot, but is trapped in an existence dictated by others.

Bigger’s problems start when Hannah sends him to interview for a job as chauffeur to the rich Dalton family. A series of unfortunate and violent events result in death and in Bigger’s trial, which will end the only way it could.

Kelley’s dark 90-minute play whips by as it cuts quickly back and forth in time and place.

Set and projections designer Justin Humphres accomplishes this with a series of dark gray blocks, location changes indicated by an extensive set of projections.

Melanie Chen’s terrific sound design helps here, as does Chao-Yu Tsai’s fine lighting. Jaymee Ngernwichit contributes appropriate costumes.

The acting is excellent all around. White’s Bigger is a triumph, a hopeful young man waiting for life to start balanced by Dallas’ realistic Big Black Rat, who knows the trick is in simply staying alive.

Roberson’s Mary Dalton projects the charm and innocence of the rich, while Caroline Siewert’s Mrs. Dalton – blind but with heightened other senses, and not in the least incapable – excellently depicts the concern of a mother for her daughter.

Kimberly Monks is terrific as Bigger’s mother Hannah, trying to create a home and help her kids build lives in a system staked against them. Monks can also make some mean sounds as a gospel singer.

Richard Wright wrote “Native Son” in 1940, in response to the execution of a black man for the murder of a white woman. At the time, a newspaper article noted the following: “He is very black – almost pure Negro. His physical characteristics suggest an early link in the species.”

The book was an immediate best seller, and though fellow writer James Baldwin dismissed it as “protest fiction,” it has endured as required reading in many schools. The Modern Library named it number 20 on its list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century.

Here’s your chance to see it on the stage, but hurry: only three performances remain.

The details

“Native Son” plays through November 19, 2016 at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse.

Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm

Tickets available HERE