Home News ‘Native Son’ at Lifeline is a perfect window into the novel

‘Native Son’ at Lifeline is a perfect window into the novel


As a bookworm who used to live in Rogers Park, I’m a longtime fan of Lifeline Theatre, the small non-Equity company that specializes in literary adaptations. Its current production of “Native Son,” Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, is one of the best Lifeline shows I’ve seen. With thrilling direction by ILesa Duncan and a strong ensemble, Kelley’s playwriting skills shine as she transforms a book that largely takes place in the protagonist’s head into a propulsively paced one-act play.

Set on Chicago’s South Side in 1939, “Native Son” is told from the perspective of Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old Black man who accidentally kills the daughter of his wealthy white employer and becomes a fugitive from law enforcement and the mob violence of the city’s white population. Wright’s novel intersperses gripping action sequences with long passages that examine the psychological effects of systemic racism. Without excusing Bigger’s deeds, which include a second murder and a sexual assault, Wright makes the case that segregation, poverty and discrimination were key factors in driving him to violence.

Kelley’s adaptation premiered 10 years ago at Court Theatre, not far from where the story takes place, in a co-production with American Blues Theater. It has since played across the country, including off-Broadway. The Lifeline production was my first time seeing the play, and I’ve rarely seen a book-to-stage adaptation work so well.

To stage such an intensely interior novel, Kelley divides the leading role between two actors. At Lifeline, Tamarus Harvell plays Bigger, and James Lewis plays an alter ego of sorts. The double casting reflects the concept of a double consciousness outlined in the play’s opening lines — the idea that every African American has two conflicting senses of self: the one he knows himself to be, and the one that white people see. As Harvell’s Bigger interacts with his white employers, Lewis voices the frustrations that he can’t say aloud. When Bigger goes on the run after killing Mary Dalton (Laura Nelson), Lewis sometimes serves as a conscience, urging restraint, but more often advocates for self-preservation — a desperate struggle that leads to more violence.

The play’s structure is equally innovative, beginning with Mary’s death and telling the story in rapid alternation between flashbacks and the present. Duncan’s direction is impeccably paced and uses every bit of Regina García’s set, which foregrounds a staircase that anyone who has lived in a Chicago apartment will recognize. Branden Marble’s lighting design also helps with the quick transitions between past and present, which often feel more like a cleverly edited film than scene changes in a play.

The fearless leading performances by Harvell and Lewis are matched by the rest of the cast, including Ashli Rene Funches as Bigger’s girlfriend, Bessie; Kamille Dawkins as his mother, Hannah, and Dairyon Bolden as his younger brother, Buddy. The white characters range from the outright racism of private investigator Britten (Gabriel Fries) to the paternalistic liberalism of Mrs. Dalton (Mandy Walsh) and the clumsy attempts at egalitarianism of Mary’s communist boyfriend, Jan (Nick Trengove). Never appearing onstage but mentioned in the play, Mr. Dalton prides himself on donating to the NAACP but gouges his Black tenants who are forced to live in segregated neighborhoods.

The play cuts the character of Boris Max, the white communist lawyer who defends Bigger, and rushes through the trial, a lengthy section of the novel. While the ending feels somewhat abrupt, I’m glad the play wasn’t divided into two acts, which would interrupt the momentum. And Bigger has an impassioned final monologue that efficiently sums up his complex character development in the novel.

Reviving “Native Son” in 2024 naturally invites a conversation with Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” the basis for the 2023 film “American Fiction,” which won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. Everett’s protagonist, a highbrow Black writer, pens a vulgar parody of novels like “Native Son” in protest of society’s narrow expectations of Black authors. Long before Everett, James Baldwin’s 1955 essay collection, “Notes of a Native Son,” criticized Wright’s novel for dealing in stereotypes.

Still, “Native Son” remains a seminal work and is well worth revisiting at Lifeline. It’s a snapshot of a certain moment in American history and in African American literature, but its themes are also timely, especially in a city where the effects of segregation and disinvestment are still felt today. And as for Kelley’s stellar work as playwright — well, maybe it’s time the Jeff Awards add a category for best adaptation.

Review: “Native Son” (4 stars)

When: Through June 30

Where: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Tickets: $18.00-$48.00 at lifelinetheatre.com or 773-761-4477

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