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New Stage Adaptation of Richard Wright's 'Native Son' On Stage in Chicago

By Jon Sobel j.sobel@classicalite.com on Sep 17, 2014 11:42 AM EDT

Richard Wright set Native Son, his seminal novel about the African-American experience, in Chicago's South Side. That makes the Windy City an appropriate setting for the world premiere of Nambi E. Kelley new stage adaptation of the book, now playing at the Court Theatre. A co-production with American Blues Theater, Native Son runs through October 12.

Based on the novel's first two parts ("Fear" and "Flight") and directed by Drama Desk Award winner Seret Scott, the play brings to life the story of Bigger Thomas for a new generation. Jerod Haynes (A Raisin in the Sun, August Wilson's Seven Guitars), a native son of the South Side of Chicago himself, plays the role of Bigger, leading a cast of 11. Eric Lynch (Buzzer, Twelfth Night, Richard III, Broken Fences) in his Court Theater debut plays The Black Rat, Bigger's inner consciousness. As Kelley says of the Rat, "He is not the devil on the shoulder. In a sense, he is Bigger's higher self. But because Bigger does not understand his own greatness, he is blind to this."

Referring to the ongoing victimization of young black men in cities and towns across the country – most recently exemplified by Eric Garner and Michael Brown – English professor Dr. Khalilah T. Watson writes, "the relevance of Richard Wright's text in the form of this world premiere play adaptation…can be found in newspapers and television every day."

In conjunction with the world premiere, a series of events relating to the book are planned around Chicago, including a post-show discussion with theater scholar David Bevington, a symposium on "Male Roles in Family, Community, and Civil Society," and another on "Adapting Native Son."

There will also be a screening of the 1951 film version for entering students at the University of Chicago. That movie starred 42-year-old Richard Wright himself as 20-year-old Bigger Thomas. Wright had already co-written a stage adaptation shortly after the book's publication in 1940, which ran on Broadway in 1941 starring Canada Lee and directed by Orson Welles.

A second film version came out in 1986 with Victor Love, Matt Dillon, Elizabeth McGovern and Oprah Winfrey.

Says Kelley of her new adaptation, "I had to let the book come to me without dissecting it. I just needed to see it and feel it as Richard Wright intended. And that's when the book opened up to me."

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TagsNative Son, Richard Wright, Chicago, American Blues Theater, Court Theatre, Bigger Thomas

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