Straying from a mission to fulfill a promise

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About 10 minutes into Antaeus Theatre Company's production of "Native Son", a black man accidentally kills a drunk white heiress.

With most structurally sound plays, that would be enough.  

We have our moral crisis.  We have a protagonist and a powerful question - "what will society do when a black man in 1939 accidentally kills a white woman?"

What's stunning about "Native Son" is the farther it veers away from a simple, well-made play the better a piece of theater it becomes.

"Native Son" is based on Richard Wright's 1940 novel that tracks the life of Bigger Thomas.  Inspired by an actual execution of a black man in Chicago in the 1930's, the novel takes as its subject not only this black man but also the society that forged him.  Novelist Richard Wright, and by extension playwright Nambi E Kelley who brilliantly adapted the novel, is as concerned with what this black man sees when he looks in the mirror as with the crimes he commits. Or maybe said more accurately, what he's been taught to see in the mirror.  It should come as no surprise that that lesson isn't pretty.

The play launches from this accidental killing backwards and forwards in time to create a novelistic portrait of the forces that both create and undo Bigger.

As an audience the journey is uncomfortable because the treatment is so nuanced.  We aren't sure how to feel about this man. Do we judge him for the crimes or do we understand the forces pushing to crush him?

The play suggests both.  So "Native Son" frustrates your typical theatrical expectations, which is as much an indictment of the simplicity with which we typically tell this story, as it is a vindication of the import of this play.  Just at the moment you think you've wrapped your mind around the narrative or imagined what comes next - the story propels itself forward like the next chapter of a novel that has way more than three acts to cover.  This is all the more remarkable given that the play takes just over 90 minutes.

Jon Chaffin, who plays Bigger Thomas, gives a taut performance that is simultaneously deeply empathetic and terrifyingly brutal.  He carefully allows the audience just enough of a glimpse of the character’s heart while keeping us at better than arms reach. It's a performance you won't soon forget.

Now, Antaeus is a classical theater company - a company committed to keeping the classics alive. Here's arguably a new play written in 2014.  The irony is that the further Antaeus strays from its stated mission, the closer it comes to living up to its promise.  "Native Son" is a play that deserves the talent and sophistication that Antaeus brings to it's plays - but it marries that skill with a profound need.  While it's not hard to argue that Richard Wright's novel is one of the most significant American novels of the 20th century, the urgency of this production has as much to do with our troubled  present as any imagined past.

This is not an easy play to watch, but it's a play that if you care about race in America - you shouldn't miss.

"Native Son" plays at Antaeus Theatre Company in Glendale through June 3rd.

Photo courtesy of Geoffrey Wade Photography.