It took an enormous amount of nerve to present Native Son, a relentlessly unsympathetic look at racism, by Nambi E. Kelley. Fortunately, Stray Cat Theatre artistic director Ron May has that nerve, and the talent, to bring this difficult drama to the stage. Unfortunately, he does not have, in a production now at Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, a supporting cast that’s up to the challenges presented by this tightly wound one-act or the fine performances of its principal players.
Richard Wright’s novel is based on the real-life story of Robert Nixon, a young African-American man born into poverty in small-town Louisiana and convicted in 1938 of murdering a white nightclub hostess. Kelley amps up the social protest in her depiction of Bigger Thomas, a poor black chauffeur who’s on the run after killing and decapitating his employer’s daughter. Her nonlinear story allows us to see how the anguish of poverty and the pain of abandonment can lead to murder.
Micah Jondel Deshazer and Alan Johnson, playing two halves of a terrified whole, fully inhabit operatic roles. As Bigger, Deshazer captures our attention with artful stillness in one moment, noisy sorrow the next. There’s subtle resentment in his voice when he’s speaking to his white employers; a fearful growl of anger in speeches made to his alter ego. As that alter ego, Johnson is strutting and rancorous, coaching Bigger in how to kill and where to hide his panic. With swagger and a vile whisper, he neatly conveys what it feels like to be treated like a smelly “black rat,” pursued by villains.
These performances never falter under Ron May’s immaculate direction. His calisthenic blocking requires May’s cast to move from past to present in literal leaps, and he affects these transitions with athletic precision. This movement is choreographed on and around David J. Castellano’s magnificent, maze-like set, one that folds these isolated, frightened people into shadows created by Dallas Nichols’ smart lighting design. Nichols creates a darkness that is practically an 11th character in Kelley’s play.
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Unfortunately, May’s supporting cast appears lost in that darkness. Their soft, uninspired performances come close to wrecking what could have been a more worthy production. The fire and music in Kelley’s play, in Wright’s story, and in the performances of Native Son’s leads aren’t matched by the many other people who share its stage and attempt its timely message.
Native Son continues through March 26 at the Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 1333 East Washington Street. Call 602-258-8129 or visit straycattheatre.org.
Editor's note: This story has been updated from its original version.