Review: Lifeline Theatre’s Native Son Tells the Sad and Stirring Story of Bigger Thomas

The tragedy of Bigger Thomas has had many iterations since Richard Wright’s novel Native Son was published in 1940. Set in 1939 Chicago, at least two film versions and several stage adaptations have told the story of the young Black man who works earnestly to provide for his family and care for his girlfriend—until he’s caught up in events that seal his fate.

Nambi E. Kelley’s 2014 theatrical version of Native Son, which premiered at Court Theatre, is now on stage in a moving production at Lifeline Theatre, directed by artistic director Ilesa Duncan. Tamarus Harvell plays Bigger, a 20-year-old who lives with his mom Hannah (Kamille Dawkins) and two younger siblings in an apartment building on South Prairie Avenue. (In one of the opening scenes—a symbolic scene—Bigger beats a rat to death and terrifies his sister Vera, played by Ashli Rene Funches, by waving the dead creature around by its tail.) Bigger needs a job to help support his family and he has an interview that day for a job as a chauffeur and handyman for a wealthy south side family. 

That interview is the spark that begins Bigger’s downfall…although he’s hired at a decent salary, with his own room and the opportunity to drive the big family car. Mr. Dalton who, strangely, never appears in the play, is a real estate magnate; his holdings include the building where Bigger’s family lives. Mrs. Dalton (Mandy Walsh) is blind and seems well-intentioned. Her daughter Mary (Laura Nelson) is a college student who dates Jan (Nick Trengove), who has anti-capitalist views and a Communist Party membership. (Remember, this is 1939.) When Bigger is assigned to drive Mary to various events (not the university events her parents think she’s attending), Mary is a bit flirtatious with him. Mary’s coquettish manner and Jan’s hand, outstretched for a handshake, flummox Bigger, who has not had much experience with whites before.  

James Lewis, Kamille Dawkins, Dairyon Bolden, Alsi Rene Funches and Tamarus Harvell. Photo by Jackie Jasperson.

The shadowy figure of Black Rat (James Lewis) is with Bigger constantly, as his alter ego, guiding and arguing with Bigger as he moves through time and the fateful actions that take place over the two days of the story. Black Rat repeatedly reminds Bigger, “And when you look in the mirror / You only see what they tell you you is.” Bigger may be a manchild but Black Rat has an older, harder edge.

Bigger drives Mary and Jan around to various places, including taking them to a south side diner because Mary and Jan want go to to “one of those places where colored people eat, some place that’s got good liquor.” They all drink quite a bit, and when Bigger brings the drunken Mary home, he has to carry her up to her room and keep her quiet when her mother comes in looking for her. Bigger smothers Mary by accident and thus begins the long trail of tragedy. 

Duncan’s direction is skillful and keeps the quick scenes moving to create this memory play, which  moves back and forth in time in Bigger’s brain. The scenic design by Regina Garcia provides spaces on several levels using stairways and platforms, dramatically lighted by Branden Marble. Scene-setting projections are by Eme Ospina-Lopez. Sound design is by Steve Labedz and costumes by Janelle Smith, who gets extra points for the creative masking of jurors. Hanna Smaglis is stage manager. 

Mandy Walsh, Laura Nelson and Tamarus Harvell. Above, James Lewis. Photo by Jackie Jasperson.

Kelley structures the scenes of the play as they take place in Bigger’s mind, resulting in scrambled time sequences. This may be confusing to audience members who have not read Wright’s novel recently. (A few audience members seated near me complained about this after the show.) 

The theater company could have addressed this question by including a little more information in the program—such as that the play takes place over two days in Chicago in December 1939—or even suggesting in some way that Black Rat is not a real person. Many theater companies provide minimal information in their programs beyond basic cast and crew credits. This problem has increased over the last five or six years.  A company dramaturg would be the perfect person to compile the playbill and be sure enough information is included to orient the audience to what they are about to see. The tendency for theater companies to provide only a QR code, rather than any printed program, increases this problem. Lifeline does have a printed program—although important information was missing—but it was available upon request, not handed out to each attendee.  

Richard Wright based aspects of Bigger Thomas’ story on the case of a Black man named Robert Nixon, who was arrested in 1938 for a series of murders in Los Angeles and Chicago. He was executed in 1939.

Native Son is not an easy novel to read and the play is not a comfortable one to watch. Both versions are based on institutional racism, which has evolved over the decades, but is as omnipresent and ugly today as it was 85 years ago.

Native Son continues at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave., through June 30. Tickets are $45 for performances Friday-Sunday. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. 

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.