When Nambi E Kelley decided to write a play based on the Richard Wright masterpiece, Native Son, she initially approached it with a desire to bring the massive scope of the novel into a grand play of enormous scale. Her first draft was already up to 400 pages when George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Ms. Kelley she was so disturbed by the verdict, that she revised the point of view of the play altogether.
“I thought about how a group of people could listen to that testimony and say–and this was before #BlackLivesMatter–that this black life did not matter.”
She was struck by what she perceived as the jury’s decision to “put themselves in the mind of the person who pulled the trigger as opposed to the mind of the person who was killed.”
When she scaled down the book to just sixty-four scenes she gave the audience a look inside the mind of the story’s central character, Bigger Thomas, as he struggles through a series of terrible, devastating decisions, that eventually leads to Bigger’s undoing.
When Bigger Thomas, played superbly by Jerod Haynes, kills a large black rat in his family’s Chicago apartment, the rat comes to life in the form of a more confident, flashier version of Bigger, himself. The Black Rat is neither the angel nor the devil that sits on Bigger’s shoulders. He and Bigger go down the road to hell together. Jason Bowen, powerful in the role of The Black Rat, tries to keep the more emotional side of Bigger focused as they try to prevent the inevitable downfall of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person.
Rosalyn Coleman, no stranger to the Rep, plays Hannah, Bigger’s mother, while Jessica Frances Dukes plays both Bigger’s sister and Bigger’s love interest, Bessie. Ms. Dukes makes her Yale Rep debut in this play, and I hope we see her again and again. She was simply stunning. She plays the tragic Bessie with riveting clarity.
Also in the cast, is Jasai Chase-Owens, Joby Earle, Michael Pemberton, Louisa Jacobson, and Carmen Roman, as the blind Mrs. Dalton. Blinded by bad liquor during Prohibition, Mrs. Dalton reminds us of social blindness, that sadly still exists today
This production, directed by Seret Scott, and beautifully designed by Ryan Emens, runs through December 16th.
Nambi E, Kelley at the Beineke Rare Book Library at Yale. You can find more about the Richard Wright notes and manuscripts at: