Stephen Strawbridge

Chicago Blues

Review of Native Son, Yale Repertory Theatre

If he were white, Bigger Thomas, the main character in Richard Wright’s Native Son, would be called a classic anti-hero. He makes bad decisions, and he kills women, both accidentally and deliberately. In the hard scrabble streets of 1930s Chicago, Bigger schemes a heist he’s unable to pull off and, for much of the novel, runs from the law and then, arrested, finds a defender. But in making this character an African-American struggling with the harsh conditions furnished by endemic racism and the perpetuation of a hapless underclass, Wright’s great contribution to American literature was finding a way to make such a person become a figure for cathartic portrayal. Bigger’s struggle, while still making us uneasy as anti-heroes do, is a heroic confrontation with a criminal status quo.

Adapted for the stage by Nambi E. Kelley, first at Chicago’s Court Theatre and now playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, Native Son presents Bigger Thomas (Jerod Haynes, reprising the role he has played in two previous productions) as a man rather passively accosted by harsh fate. Things start badly—we see him unwittingly kill his employer’s daughter out of fear of discovery before we even grasp the situation—and then get worse in a wrenching downward spiral that Kelley and director Seret Scott, who has helmed all three productions, make us ride with Bigger in a swift 90 minutes to an inevitable end.

The play’s most marked feature is its compression. The action on stage recreates the non-linearity of Bigger’s recollections and fantasies interleaved with the inexorable events that overtake him. Kelley’s text depends on lightning-fast changes, where a phrase ending one scene might be the start of the next, and where action overlaps and reactions can stretch between scenes. It’s incredibly compelling and mostly flawless in its execution by a cast that works hard to keep the different trains running.

The cast of Native Son at Yale Repertory Theatre (photos: Joan Marcus)

The cast of Native Son at Yale Repertory Theatre (photos: Joan Marcus)

Striking features of the show include Ryan Emen’s set, comprised of towering tenement buildings with fire escapes; Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting, a carefully calibrated mix of film noir, naturalism, and expressionism; and sound designer/composer Frederick Kennedy’s moody use of jazz music together with crucial sound effects—pool balls, car doors, a crunching skull. It’s a dark play and the Yale Rep production skillfully renders this particular hell.

The visual and aural features are key as the play’s action seems to inhabit a kind of internal theatrical space in Bigger’s mind. Bigger’s actions and memories are commented on by a double/foil called The Black Rat (Jason Bowen). The character takes his name from the scene of “how Bigger was born”: still a teen, Bigger has to kill a large black rat in the family’s substandard dwelling. The event, we might say, impresses on Bigger his abject conditions and a strong survivalist core, an “it’s them or me” outlook that returns, most drastically, when he faces a decision about his sometime lover Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes, the play’s most sympathetic character)—“Can’t leave her, can’t take her with.”

The Black Rat (Jason Bowen), Bigger (Jerod Haynes)

The Black Rat (Jason Bowen), Bigger (Jerod Haynes)

The interplay of Bigger, who Haynes plays as a strong, brooding type, with The Black Rat, a cynical pragmatist, sustains the play’s development, as most of the other interactions are more emblematic than deliberated. For instance, Mrs. Dalton (Carmen Roman, another veteran of the play), is a blind rich lady who employs Bigger as a chauffeur. She tries to appear sympathetic to Bigger despite the fact that she’s complicit, through real estate holdings, with the harsh conditions of the Thomas family and their neighbors. She’s blind both literally and figuratively.

Mary Dalton (Louisa Jacobson), Bigger (Jerod Haynes), Jan (Joby Earle), background: The Black Rat (Jason Bowen)

Mary Dalton (Louisa Jacobson), Bigger (Jerod Haynes), Jan (Joby Earle), background: The Black Rat (Jason Bowen)

Scott and Kelley let characters be the types Bigger sees them as. An awkward flashback shows Bigger driving Mary (Louisa Jacobson), flapper-ish heiress of the Daltons, and her well-intentioned but condescending Communist beau Jan (Joby Earle, earnest). The couple’s effort to affect camaraderie with their servant makes Bigger uncomfortable and earns the Black Rat’s scorn. Other characters are mostly used for stock antagonisms: Michael Pemberton plays Britten, a detective whose casual racism makes him assume that Bigger, even if guilty, must have had a white accomplice for such a complex crime, and also a police officer who visits a more violent racism upon the Thomas family. The scene’s brutality is echoed in many of Bigger’s actions, such as bullying his brother Buddy (Jasai Chase-Owens), and in his treatment of hapless Bessie, a woman who sees through his lies at her own peril.

Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes), Bigger (Jerod Haynes)

Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes), Bigger (Jerod Haynes)

The fantasy scenes, which might give us access to the world Bigger either feels himself to be a part of or would like to be a part of, can be arrestingly odd. In one, Jan importunes Bigger, trying to understand his crime, and invites him for a beer; in another, Bigger’s mother, Hannah (Rosalyn Coleman), grovels at the feet of a steely Mrs. Dalton; and, in the most satiric, which almost suggests a different direction for the play, the white folks sing a vicious spiritual that urges Bigger “to surrender to white Jesus.”

Such scenes seem to function as asides; the main tensions of the play are contained in Bigger’s guilt and flight. The scene in which Bigger tries to rid himself of Mary’s body is harrowing in its stark necessity but also grimly comic. Haynes, who generally maintains a tone of barely mastered panic, tries to brazen it out and we find ourselves wishing that, just once, things would go his way and let Bigger outsmart someone.

As a “native son,” Bigger is born to a condition that deprives him of much in the way of interiority and aspiration, leaving him to depend on whatever street smarts he’s able to muster. The Black Rat is a figment of that way of life, telling Bigger at the outset: “How they see you take over on the inside.  And when you look in the mirror – You only see what they tell you you is.  A black rat sonofabitch.”

The cast of Native Son, left to right: Michael Pemberton, Rosalyn Coleman, Jessica Frances Dukes, Jerod Haynes, Carmen Roman, Louisa Jacobson, Joby Earle, Jason Bowen

The cast of Native Son, left to right: Michael Pemberton, Rosalyn Coleman, Jessica Frances Dukes, Jerod Haynes, Carmen Roman, Louisa Jacobson, Joby Earle, Jason Bowen

Theatrically varied and energetic in its approach, Native Son demands and repays the attention of audiences serious about theater and the need to tell difficult stories.


Native Son
By Nambi E. Kelley
Adapted from the novel by Richard Wright
Directed by Seret Scott

Scenic Designer: Ryan Emens; Costume Designer: Katie Touart; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer and Original Music: Frederick Kennedy; Production Dramaturg: Molly FitzMaurice; Technical Director: Jen Seleznow; Vocal Coach: Ron Carlos; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting: Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Caitlin O’Rourke

Cast: Jason Bowen, Jasai Chase-Owens, Rosalyn Coleman, Jessica Frances Dukes, Joby Earle, Jerod Haynes, Louisa Jacobson, Michael Pemberton, Carmen Roman


Yale Repertory Theatre
November 24-December 16, 2017

Indifferent Honest

In the playbill for Hamlet at the Yale Repertory, directed by James Bundy and starring Paul Giamatti, dramaturg Dana Tanner-Kennedy quotes the critic Jan Kott: “we can only appraise any Shakespearean production by asking how much there is of Shakespeare in it, and how much of us.” Good question.  And who is “us,” anyway?

One “us” involved here, of course, is the Yale School of Drama—both Bundy and Giamatti are grads and Bundy is its Dean as well as the Artistic Director of the Yale Rep.  A fair number of former students and current students grace this production, so, from that point of view, this Hamlet is “us” in spades.  In fact, it might be hard at times to see this production as not about that particular “us.”  From that point of view, it’s remarkably successful—the show is sold out*.  Kudos, all around.  And particularly to graduating student Meredith Ries for her stunning and fascinating set.

But we must also consider Shakespeare and the other “us”—not simply the audience (i.e. the local citizenry and others who have come here to see a name actor of stage and screen enact one of the premiere roles in all of theater), but also, one assumes, the contemporary world in general.

Hamlet, we might say (and Tanner-Kennedy makes that case in the playbill), is always “modern”—and it’s up to “us” (critics, I suppose) to decide if it’s modern in a way that makes sense for the tenor of the times.  That said, as a critic I tend to sympathize with Harold Bloom who insists that Shakespeare’s plays would work, even if you cut out all the stage business and simply have the actors speak the lines to the best of their abilities.  In fact, Bloom goes further and suggests many a production would be better that way.

The case for “how much Shakespeare,” then, has to do with whether the lines get across.  The lines alone make it about “us”—so, “speak the speech, I pray you, as I spoke it to you” and you cannot then be false to the text, and cannot fail to implicate “us.”  Now, if this come tardy off or something too much, as Hamlet might say, then we run into problems.

If you know the play, you know I’m cribbing in part from Hamlet’s advice to the players.  It’s good advice, and might be extended to other matters the Dane touches not on.  On that score, this is a Hamlet that hews, for the most part, to the “temperance” that “begets a clearness” the Prince himself might applaud.  In other words—and in Hamlet there are always more “words, words, words”—the play is easy to follow and, despite its length, not overlong.  Giamatti is often almost breathless with exertion—you might easily believe he is devoutly wishing for both “rest” and “silence”—and yet he ever finds new modulations in a voice gifted with considerable range.

In the advice scene, Bundy—and it was one of my favorite bits—makes Hamlet’s comments seem windy director’s notes on a performance that hasn’t happened yet.  The actors humor him and basically play him for a fool even as he advises them not to let the fools govern the piece.  His advice is about how much comedy to let into a tragedy, and how much passion.

Bundy’s production errs a little on both.  At times the actors—and Marc Kudisch’s King Claudius is the most remiss in this, though Giamatti would not ‘scape whipping on that score neither—tend to pump up the sobs and tears a bit too much.  Contrast that with Patrick Kerr’s First Player who does the “mobled queen” speech as  though it’s a bit of vaudeville.  Still better and worse, as Gertrude (Lisa Emery) might say.  For comic missteps, the Queen's bottle-swilling undercuts the pathos of her lyrical speech describing Ophelia’s death, though one could argue it suits the "Sopranos Go Elsinore" royal couple.

Other thoughts on support: the scenes between Kudisch’s stiff CEO-like Claudius and Tommy Schrider’s unconvincing Laertes make some of Part Two slow going.  It’s not just that we aren’t getting our Giamatti—what we are getting isn’t pointed enough to make us care.  Jarlath Conroy’s Gravedigger is all he should be and no more; Brooke Parks’ Ophelia is only interesting when she’s gone mad, aided by the great touch of having her robed in her dead father’s bloody button-down; Gerry Ramman’s Polonius uses a masterful sense of timing to give us the comedy embedded in a presumptuous counselor’s demands for dignity; and Austin Durant is perfectly measured as a scholarly and mannerly Horatio.

And what of Giamatti, and “us”?  When, early on, the Prince, wracked with sobs over his dead dad, assumes a fetal position, then starts up like a guilty thing when Horatio and the Watch come upon him, we get a real glimpse into this Hamlet.  An overgrown baby, an ineffective “manchild” of so many films of today, he berates his would-be lover Ophelia while swaddled in a bathrobe, boxers, and socks (the uniform of the clinically depressed).  When he has to lay into his mother on her bed, Giamatti is hunched and pained, often pressing his hands between his legs as though ashamed of himself.  The scenes between Hamlet and his father’s Ghost (Kudisch again, and very commanding in the role) are riveting, thanks in part to Lighting (the most excellent Stephen Strawbridge) and Sound (the wondrous Keri Klick). Giamatti plays the first on his knees and the second, in his mother’s bedroom, as though prostrate with emotion at the realization that he can’t be his dad’s avenger, much less his replacement.  When we see Hamlet don the Player King’s crown I couldn't help thinking of Charles Laughton as Quasimodo crowned as the King of Fools.  This Hamlet is a thing of “shreds and patches.”  A fit of hysteria hiding behind “knavery.”

And what of the knavery?  I’m of the opinion that Hamlet comes close to madness by trying to be too clever by half, talking himself into fits, we might say.  Giamatti’s Hamlet, when at his wit’s end, is likely to mime slitting his throat or to make nutty faces—something for the groundlings.  But Giamatti can also be cutting with voice alone and has the means to manifest the thoughtful Hamlet and the heart-eating one as well—his entrance and first scene make that clear.  What I’d like more of is Hamlet in a battle of wills against himself—and against “us,” the ever-present audience the Prince carries in his own mind.

Likeable, energetic, frustrated, Giamatti is best as the impatient, resourceful Hamlet who, brilliant and lazy, won't suffer fools gladly.  He might, we imagine, be happily playing computer games on the old man’s dime if some ambitious relative hadn’t poisoned the king in his garden.  And when this poor fool of a prince has strutted his three hours upon the stage, the military man Fortinbras (Paul Pryce) comes in to mop up.

I’d say this Hamlet’s got “us” right.  O cursèd spite!

*Note: though the production is sold out, there is a wait list that begins an hour before each performance: 6:30 for evening shows; 12:30 p.m. for matinees.


William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Directed by James Bundy Starring Paul Giamatti

Composer: Sarah Pickett; Scenic Designer: Meredith B. Ries; Costume Designer: Jayoung Yoon; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer: Keri Klick; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Vocal Coach: Grace Zandarski; Movement Coach: Erica Fae; Production Dramaturg: Dana Tanner-Kennedy; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda

Yale Repertory Theatre March 15-April 13, 2013