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American Century Theater Native Son

By • Apr 30th, 2009 • Category: Reviews
Native Son
The American Century Theater
Thomas Jefferson Community Theater, Arlington, VA
$25-$32
Playing through May 9th
Reviewed April 29th, 2009

Native Son is a thought-provoking piece currently in production at the American Century Theater. The action revolves around Bigger Thomas, a poverty-stricken black youth in the 1930s who finds work as a chauffeur with a powerful family (The Daltons) in order to support his family. Through a series of unfortunate events, Bigger finds himself on death row for the accidental murder of young heiress, Mary Dalton.

The novel and the play aren’t as closely connected as they should be. The novel gives a clear picture of Bigger and his intentions, whereas the play has character inconsistencies that make it hard to formulate an opinion one way or another. In the novel, Bigger is not portrayed as intelligent, and he is most certainly a brute. He initiates the first moves towards the doomed daughter, there is far more graphic violence towards his own girlfriend, and he has a basic indifference towards human life. The issues of race, political beliefs, religion, and crime as an environmental factor are fully explored in the novel, but skimmed over in the play.

In the play, Bigger comes off as a sullen man frustrated with the state of his life and his obligations to do right by his family when he has dreams of his own. Then he’s a loose cannon, turning a bit of fun with his friends into a scary showdown. Then he’s humbled and polite in the face of affluence. Then he’s…well, you get my point. He’s only unsympathetic at times. That’s not to say that the play isn’t any good. It has moments of almost poetic beauty, but is sometimes overshadowed by weak writing, especially in the latter half of the play. Here, Bigger’s crime was not committed with malice. His lack of remorse isn’t fully realized or understood because many key elements of the novel are condensed, and he ends up garnering far more sympathy for his own person rather than any extenuating factors.

JaBen A. Early gives an outstanding performance as Bigger. He offers a layered portrayal that is at turns charming, brooding, frightening, humble, and sensitive. It is a difficult role, and he gives himself over to it 100%.

Brian Razzino in one small scene as a journalist is fantastic. Sleazy, funny, nagging, brilliant. Mick Tinder (Henry Dalton) was nicely nuanced, giving something extra to a man described as a capitalistic slumlord. Danni Stewart (Mrs. Dalton) had a haunting quality that was paired with an earnest nature and inner strength. Portraying a blind person isn’t easy, but she does a very credible job. Their private detective Britten (Bruce Alan Rauscher) embraces a great fastidious and shady persona.

It was a pity that the woman portraying Bigger’s little sister Vera (Iman Hassen) was only onstage for a few minutes. Her strong performance left an indelible impression.

A few of the roles dipped too far into caricature and stereotype for my liking, but overall the performances were very solid.

The entire scene in the courtroom was unnecessary, in my opinion. Because of the different direction that the play took us in, it felt forced instead of influential. The final scene between defense attorney Edward Max (Bud Stringer) and Bigger would have been enough as it was poignant and conclusive. Stringer was passionate and believable as a lawyer who had seen much, and understood the plight of racism all too well.

Because of the up close and personal space at TACT, it is very difficult to execute plausible fight choreography. Some of the scenes that should be rough and gritty look as graceful as a ballet, and the heat and intensity of the action is stifled at times. Every little detail counts in a small space, and the focused attention to detail is needed. I’d rather have seen intensity in the faces and tension in the bodies to depict the threat of violence between the actors as opposed to an outright brawl. The scene between Mary and Bigger was chilling, but seeing the body heave with breath after death was a little disconcerting. Staging it in a darkened corner instead of center stage or even covering her completely with a heavy blanket to muffle movement might have been more effective.

The costumes were exactly right (Rachel Morrissey), the lighting crafted and subtle (Andrew F. Griffin), and the set changes were quick and seamless.

All in all, the production moved like lightning, thanks to Director Bob Bartlett‘s steady and experienced hand. The theatre in the round style is difficult to pull off, but was done with few hitches. It is a play worth seeing, and I was thrilled to see a sold out house on a rainy Wednesday night. TACT can be counted on to deliver great theatre, and it does not disappoint here.

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