Playwright Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel (1940) for the Marin Theatre Company stage, under the direction of Seret Scott, resonates many decades later at a time when Black lives still do not matter.
Twenty-year-old Bigger was born into a world that he had not created or looked forward to. His mother Hannah recalls her boy’s reticence to enter a world meant to destroy him—if not his life, then his dreams.
Her son did not want to leave the sanctity of the womb, a place where there was comfort, love and safety for a place he knew instinctively he would not find the same nurturing or support.
Home for Bigger was a place where he was surrounded by enemies whom he was powerless to defend himself against—he could not even escape them in his dreams, as whiteness seemed to control everything his mind touched.
Like Black warriors castrated during puberty rites, like Malcolm Little and even the fictional Walter Lee II, Bigger doesn’t stand a chance.
When Bigger was offered a job by his slumlord apartment owners, he was not grateful. He took the job because his mother all but forces him into it.
Driving rich white people around does nothing for his ego – it’s not his car, and white people make the youth nervous, especially his boss’s daughter, Mary, and her communist boyfriend, Jan. Both drink too much, and both want to be his friend.
As the two sandwich Bigger between then and offer him a drink from a decanter, he wishes they would stop intruding into spaces carefully designed to keep the races apart. He is well rehearsed in his role and knows such familiarity can only lead to his destruction.
His stage manager is The Black Rat, a clever creature whom Bigger knows intimately. Black Rat advises Bigger, rehearses his lines with him, like a catechism—“You are nothing, you will amount to nothing.”
The two are connected at the hip, conjoined, inseparable—yet even here, Kelley and Wright’s Bigger is allowed agency. The murders he commits are real, yet also symbolic.
Giulio Cesare Perrone’s set is stark, empty – the scaffolding suggests a psychic and material interior we do not see. There is nothing between Bigger and the world—no insulation, no walls, no heat, no love. He lives in the “between,” neither here nor there.
Bigger is beaten physically by the police when he tries to protect his mother, and psychologically by the world which only works for white people— There is no reward, so Bigger runs, chased by nightmares all too real.
Black Rat appears and reappears like a talisman. Black families on Chicago’s Southside know there is no poison strong enough to rid their lives of this pestilence. Black Rat’s reincarnation is guaranteed by societal circumstances then and now.
It is what W.E.B Dubois calls double consciousness – the public and the interior self – The Rat vs. Bigger Thomas.
Don’t miss this riveting production at Marin Theatre Company, through Feb. 12, which put Nambi E. Kelley’s “Native Son” at the center of its 50th anniversary season. The Marin Theatre Company is located at 397 Miller Ave. in Mill Valley.
For information visit marintheatre.org or call (415) 388-5208.