Stage Reading of Richard Wright’s Native Son

Two of my passions: Criminal Justice and Theater. The two rarely mix well. From corny ( The Valiant) to obtuse (The Exonerated: PLEASE NOTE: YOU’RE WATCHING AN ANTI-DEATH PENALTY PLAY!), I find that when the theatre tries to tackle social justice issues the outcome is all too often flat and preachy.

Richard’s Wright’s stage adaptation of his own novel, Native Son, for the most part, defies the trappings of social justice message plays. If you don’t know the novel, written in 1940 – and one of the best in 20th century literature – it tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a black youth living in poverty on Chicago’s South Side who gets the “opportunity” to work for a rich white capitalist, and owner of the South side tenements, Henry Dalton. One of Bigger’s charges is to chaperon the Dalton’s spoiled young daughter, Mary (think the General’s Daughter, Carmen in The Big Sleep – tell me you wouldn’t have trouble keeping up with that one). Bigger ends up accidentally killing Mary, you can guess where the story goes from there.

Native Son, and its stage adaptation by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater in 1941, caused near riots across the country for its portrait of Bigger who is utterly unapologetic for his crime. When Wright came to Chapel Hill to work on the play with Paul Green, Green’s own cousin, armed with a gun, threatened violence, and Green had to quell several public outcries, so determined were the locals to run Wright out of town.

This evening at 7:30 pm at UNC’s Gerrard Hall (across from the Old Well) there will be a staged reading of Native Son. (admission is free, more information here). I rarely have time for this sort of thing anymore, but I will be reading the role of the grieving father, Henry Dalton.

But that is no reason to attend. The young actor playing Bigger is terrific; his performance (and I say performance because this is all done with script-in-hand, but this actor manages to lift the words off the page) is fresh, raw and electrifying – well worth a couple of hours of your evening. For my money, the play falls apart after Bigger is caught by authorities; we get the stock trial scenes with a long-winded public defender, and excessive moralising from the white man (It’s been I while, but I don’t recall all this in the novel and I suspect this was Green’s contribution to the play).

Anyway, there is a talk-back after the performance. Someone suggested in light of the play’s circumstances and the times, the murder of Eve Carson was going to be mentioned and discussed. I sincerely hope they don’t do this. Apart from the black-on-white crime, I don’t find much in common with the two matters. Let the play speak for itself and so be it. It reads fresh today – 70 years later – and we don’t need mapping to local events to get that point.

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