It all begins in the dark, feet shuffling across the stage until they hit their starting points. When the lights finally turn on, each actor looks ahead, inhaling and exhaling deeply. Suddenly they begin walking, quickly, circling around one another with their chests leaning ahead, like birds about to take flight.
But no one learns to fly and freedom isn’t found in this story. If anything, “Native Son” showcases what it’s like to fall, literally and figuratively.
The most powerful moments were also some of the most climactic.
While the story of Bigger Thomas was written nearly 80 years ago by Richard Wright, “Native Son” comments on the layers of systematic racism that continues to shape America today. The story follows Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old living on the South Side of Chicago. As a poor, young, black man living in America, Bigger’s fate is laid out for him from the moment he takes the job as a driver for the wealthy, white Dalton family.
There are two aspects of Mosaic Theater Company of DC’s production that make it compelling. The first is playwright Nambi Kelley’s creation of Black Rat, Bigger’s double consciousness. This additional character adds insight into who Bigger is according to society and simultaneously reminds him of who and what he can never aspire to be. With Black Rat, Kelley shows how quickly Bigger had to go from being a boy to a man, from someone who seeks comfort from his mother to someone who seethes rage, killing a rat with so much force his family yells at him to stop.
The second aspect that sets this production apart is director Psalmayene 24’s decision to keep the entire cast on stage from the moment the play starts. Whether in dialogue or peering out from the shadows, every character, big or small, witnesses and shapes Bigger’s fate. The most powerful moments were also some of the most climactic. For example, when the cast took turns throwing their bricks down with varying grunts. Even the smallest of interactions felt deliberate, like when Stephen F. Schmidt, one of the white, male cast members, came out of the shadows to offer Bigger a handgun.
Clayton Peham, Jr. is incredible as Bigger and Vaughn Ryan Midder plays a convincing Black Rat. Together, their energy is organic and powerful. Their movements complement each other nicely. Whether Bigger is racing around in a panic or struggling to walk another block in the snow, Black Rat is there, either annoyed at Bigger’s inability to think straight, or frustrated by his desire to give up. And when their dialogue syncs up, there’s a chilling effect, as if foreshadowing what’s to come, when they’ll be one.
Renee Elizabeth Wilson balances two characters, Vera, Bigger’s young sister, and Bessie, Bigger’s girlfriend. While Bessie’s life is also taken too soon, Wilson’s performance left me wanting to know more. The whole city of Chicago is on the hunt for Mary Dalton’s murderer, but what about Bessie? Who is out searching for her? If anyone finds her, will they even react to seeing her body?
Lolita Marie is sincere in her portrayal of Hannah, Bigger’s mother. From comforting her son to begging for his life, Marie’s depiction of motherly love is spot on. Meanwhile, Melissa Flaim and Madeline Joey Rose both nail their parts as the pretentious Mrs. Dalton and vivacious Mary Dalton, respectively.
While the set was minimal, designed by Ethan Sinnott, the creative use of the actors on stage made for an interesting way of signaling scene changes. This was best seen when everyone lined up by height to create the fireplace and chimney Bigger was tasked with overseeing. Even in moments of stillness or internal debate, there was always movement, whether that was William K. D’Eugenio’s use of lights to create the illusion of snow falling, or Nick “the 1da” Hernandez’s use of sound bites and movie clips to give context of the other characters in the play.
While “Native Son” quickly transitions back and forth in time, keeping up and connecting the pieces wasn’t the hard part. What has kept me thinking since seeing this production is the fact that despite how much time has passed since this story first came to life, so little has changed for black men and women living in America.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Profanity, racial slurs, nudity and sexual content. This show is recommended for audiences 18 and over.
“Native Son” plays until April 28, 2019, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Washington, DC. For more information or to purchase tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2 or click here.