Playwright: Nambi E. Kelley after the novel by Richard Wright. At: American Blues Theater & Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis St. Tickets: 773-753-4472 or www.courttheatre.org; $45-$65. Runs through Oct. 19
On the surface, Nambi E. Kelley's world-premiere stage adaptation of Richard Wright's novel Native Son is a period piece set in 1939 Chicago. But as the play hurls toward its tragic end, it becomes uncomfortably apparent at how much of the drama's depiction of the racist and unequal society of back then is still with us today.
So Court Theatre and American Blues Theater deserve nothing but kudos for this powerful collaboration that brings Wright's best-selling novel to life in a new way ( Wright himself worked with Paul Green in 1941 on a Broadway version of his novel ).
Kelley's taut, 90-minute adaptation of Native Son is gripping from start to finish, plus it constantly makes you question the inequities faced by its many characters. Kelley also demands the audience's attention by her fractured storytelling structure, which keeps things in a constant state of flux as events from the past and present are pieced into place.
Kelley leads off with the accidental murder committed by the symbolically named Bigger Thomas ( Jerod Haynes ), the central character of a young, aspirational African-American man who has uncomfortably found himself in place of privilege as the chauffeur for the wealthy white Dalton family.
While the main thrust of the drama concerns Bigger's attempts to cover up the crime and his time on the run, Native Son also details the societal circumstances and surroundings that contributed to this tragic chain of events. Another interesting theatrical device is Kelley's idea of personifying the inner thoughts of Bigger via the unseen cool-cat character of "The Black Rat" ( Eric Lynch ).
Helping to keep all of Kelley's theatrical plates spinning with ease is director Seret Scott, who is assisted in focusing the action with pin-point precision by lighting designer Marc Stubblefield throughout the multi-level unit set designed by Regina Garcia.
Scott has also assembled a top-notch acting ensemble, who believably slip into their multitude of characters as comfortably as their fine period costumes designed by Melissa Torchia. Whether its Shanésia Davis pouring out a widowed mother's shocked disbelief of being told her son is a murderer or Nora Fiffer drunkenly staggering across a room as a spoilt socialite, the entire ensemble is utterly convincing in their many roles.
But pride of place definitely goes to the commanding performance of Haynes as Bigger. Haynes embodies all the pent-up rage and pained desperation of this marathon role that rests so heavily on his shoulders.
There's no doubt that many audience members will find Kelley's dramatically compelling adaptation of Native Son to be deeply unsettling. But that's as it should be in our own day and age where African-American lives are often afforded the equal respect and dignity they deserve.