Nambi Kelley’s brisk new take on ‘Native Son’ at Yale Rep through Dec. 16
Published 11:33 pm, Saturday, November 25, 2017
Anyone remotely close to playwright-actor Nambi E. Kelley appreciates the inevitability of her one day adapting Richard Wright’s 1940 novel “Native Son” for the stage. Kelley, who came to New Haven to oversee the official opening of her adaptation Friday at Yale Repertory Theatre, has carried “Native Son” in her veins since she initially stole her first glimpse of the iconic book at the tender age of 7.
“It was on my mother’s mantle,” said Kelley last week from New York, where she workshopped her latest, original play, “Blood,” at the National Black Theatre.
“I picked it up because I knew Richard Wright’s name,” she said. “We’d read an excerpt from ‘Black Boy’ in school. So I picked it up thinking it was for me, even though ‘Black Boy,’ in its entirety, is not age-appropriate for an 8-year-old either.
“I got about halfway through it, and my mother caught me,” Kelley said, invoking the tone of a youngster freshly busted for smoking her first cigarette.
“I got caught with Richard Wright,” Kelley deadpanned.
Kelley eagerly finished reading Wright’s story of the 20-year-old Bigger Thomas and his brief, hellish journey on earth, in high school and has re-read the book several times since. When Wendy Whiteside, artistic director of Chicago’s American Blues Theatre, called Kelley to offer the playwright a commission to adapt “Native Son,” Kelley was gobsmacked.
“Wendy said, ‘Nambi...! What do you think of this?’ ” said Kelley, a New York native raised in Chicago.
“I’m like, ‘OH MY GOD, YES!’ Then I thought about it after I got off the phone with her, and I thought: ‘Oh my God! What did I just say yes to?’ ”
Seret Scott directs “Native Son,” which runs through Dec. 16 at The Rep, featuring a cast of Jason Bowen, Jasai Chase-Owens, Rosalyn Coleman, Jessica Frances Dukes, Joby Earle, Louisa Jacobson, Michael Pemberton and Carmen Roman; and Jerod Haynes as Bigger.
The story is set in Chicago’s south side and chronicles Bigger’s compact, tumultuous journey through White America as a marginalized African American. Like Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck a century before him, Bigger fails to navigate his own course through the all-consuming currents of society that seem to pre-ordain his pathetic fate. The novel has been adapted for film twice (Wright playing Bigger in the 1941 version), and for stage countless times.
Scott, who has previously helmed productions of Kelley’s adaptation in Chicago and Marin County before arriving in New Haven to stage it at Yale Rep, said that “this play is different from any other I’ve had to shape or sculpt.
“It’s 64 scenes in 90 minutes,” Scott said. “As I initially read it, I thought it had all the elements of a screenplay. Then I realized how stunning it would be to capture those moments on stage.”
Scott said the play’s rapid-fire flow of scenes in such quicksilver fashion requires minimal set and maximum artistry by Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting design and Frederick Kennedy’s sound design.
“The lights, as far as I’m concerned, are another character,” Scott said. “The sound, another character. (The sounds) are very much inside Bigger’s head.”
Kelley described the play’s structure as Bigger’s “mind map.”
“As quickly as the mind processes information and moves on to the other thoughts, is the speed of the play,” Kelley said. “Actually, it’s probably slower than the average person processes things. The goal is that you’ve stepped inside the way Bigger thinks. It seems random, but the thoughts are connected.”
Once Kelley buckled down from the joyous shock of accepting the commission to work on “Native Son,” she set her agenda toward encountering Wright’s story as if for her first time, determined to allow the play’s structure to present itself rather than interpret it through her own personalized filters.
“If any kind of thought of how it would look popped into my head, I literally would stop it: like, STOP! STOP THAT THOUGHT!” Kelley said. “I have a very strong intention to honor the integrity of the source material. At the same time, ‘it’s honoring the source material’ means locating it where it hits me in my gut, and allowing it to flow out of me in an authentic way. I don’t want to get in the way at all. I let it lead me where it wants to be. It’s pretty much the same with original material: get out of its way and let it flow from me.”
Wright’s novel is written in three parts: “Fear,” “Flight” and “Fate.” Kelley adheres closely to that construct.
“It really was important to me to allow the source material to guide me, as opposed to me deciding what it was before I had re-engaged fully with the material,” she said. “I knew the book, obviously, so I didn’t want to get ahead of it and start planning and plotting and deciding. ... I wanted it to tell me what it wanted to be.”
Kelley happened to be with her production of “The Book of Living and Dying,” premiering at The Finger Players in Singapore, when she started work on “Native Son.” Just as Wright wrote his novel with the infamous “Brick Moron” murder case of the late 1930s fresh on his mind, Kelley wrote with George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the case of Trayvon Martin fueling her work.
“I was beside myself with grief and anger,” she said. “How could you acquit a man who stalked and then murdered a child? Not a man, a child. It just really hurt.
“Who were these jurors who empathized with a man who stalked and murdered a child who’s walking home in the rain with Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea?” Kelley said. “The play had to speak to empathy: how do we foster empathy?”