Richard Wright’s play NATIVE SON, first staged by Orson Welles, is revived at the American Century Theater
Kudos to Jack Marshall, the artistic director of The American Century Theater for bringing yet a third Orson Welles production back to the boards, after previously reviving Welles's Moby Dick-Rehearshed (twice!) and Marc Blizstein's The Cradle Will Rock. Since The American Century Theater concentrates on 20th Century American playwrights, it is too bad that precludes them from mounting a revival of Welles's epic adaptation of Shakespeare's Five Kings for a future season!
Judging from the reviews, however, their revival of Native Son is well worth checking out if you live in the Washington D.C. area.
Below is the press release for Native Son, followed by Time magazine's report on the original 1941 production, which sadly, marked the last time Orson Welles and John Houseman would work together on a Mercury Theater production.
Novelist Richard Wright’s searing novel Native Son aroused violent controversy from the moment it was published. The saga of a young American black man who becomes an unrepentant killer, the book was hailed as an uncompromising indictment of the nation’s racial divisions and social injustice, and condemned as feeding white bigotry while excusing crime. Naturally, Orson Welles, then the most dynamic force in American theater, thought it was just the kind of story his Mercury Theater needed to tackle. He commissioned Wright to do a stage adaptation in collaboration with playwright Paul Green, and the production, much to Welles’ delight, was as controversial as the novel.
At a very different time in our nation’s history, The American Century Theater (TACT) is giving Washington area audiences a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience Native Son, in a new production of the Right-Green-Welles adaptation that still raises disturbing and important questions. The production opens April 14 and will continue through May 9 in Theater II, at the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington, Virginia.
“TACT’s previous productions of Orson Welles projects---The Cradle Will Rock and Moby Dick Rehearsed---reflected the energy and daring of Welles as well as his skill at telling difficult stories theatrically. Add to that Green and Wright’s provocative and gut-wrenching adaptation of the novel, and it equals a play every American needs to experience,” says TACT Artistic Director Jack Marshall.
As one historian wrote, "The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.”
Bob Bartlett, who delivered a smashing production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! two seasons ago, directs Native Son, working with a cast of 21. Barlett is a member of the theater faculty in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Bowie State University, Maryland.
Because of the importance of the novel, its controversial themes, and to provide historical and critical context for audiences, the company will hold a post-show program after every performance, featuring guest scholars and critics as well as the cast, director, and designers. It will also be hosting several groups from area schools. And thanks to assistance from the Arlington County Cultural Affairs Division, TACT will hold a national tele-symposium on the play and the novel, in which a panel of distinguished scholars will join the Native Son artistic team in an hour-long discussion, available to listeners free, via a toll free number. Among the participants will be Hazel Rowley, author of the acclaimed biography Richard Wright: Life and Times.
About the Cast of Native Son
Washington, D.C. actor JaBen A. Early makes his TACT debut as Bigger Thomas, the impoverished young black man who is unable to understand, much less overcome the forces of society and destiny that destroy his life.
The strong supporting cast includes TACT standouts in past productions: Bruce Alan Rauscher, a Helen Hayes nominee for his role in The Andersonville Trial; Evan Crump, the affecting young lead in Ah, Wilderness!; Mick Tinder, most recently the versatile host of An American Century Christmas; Brian Razzino, whose talents were on display in Cops, The Titans, and Happy Birthday, Wanda June; and John Geoffrion, TACT veteran last seen in Desire Under the Elms.
Joining them are TACT newcomers Renee Charlow, Hannah Thomas, Megan Graves, Iman Hassen, Kalon Hayward, Christine Hirrel, Jivon Lee Jackson, Farah Lawal, Mark McKinnon, Paul Andrew Morton, Kofi Owusu, Julie Roundtree, Danni Stewart, Bud Stringer and Rob Weinzimer.
Native Son producers are Rip Claassen and Sherri Perper Haddad.
NATIVE SON opens Tues., April 14, 2009 and runs for 22 performances through Sat., May 9, 2009 at Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, Virginia 22206.
Performances most weeks are Wed. through Sat. evenings, with weekend matinees at 2:30 PM on April 18, 19, 25, 26, and May 2 and 3. Three “pay-what-you-can” performances will be given on the following dates, for which no advanced reservations are taken: Wednesdays, April 15, 22, and 29.
New Plays in Manhattan
Time Magazine – April 7, 1941
Native Son (produced by Orson Welles & John Houseman). Playwright Paul Green has helped Negro Novelist Richard Wright turn his best-selling Native Son into by all odds the strongest drama of the season. Broadway drama critics generally agreed that the book's pain-by-pain account of the Negro hero's tortured mind was more powerful than the play. But in ten scenes, framed within forbidding brick walls, played without intermission, the play says plenty.
The story is of Bigger Thomas (Canada Lee), a brooding, violent Negro whose father was killed in a Southern race riot, who lives with his mother, sister and kid brother in one room in the Chicago slums. With his pals he indulges in fantasies of machine-gunning white enemies. Through an unctuous social worker, Bigger gets a job as chauffeur to the wealthy landlord of the tenement he lives in. The landlord's handsome daughter (Anne Burr) is a neurotic, alcoholic Fellow Traveler who adopts an intimate manner toward Bigger.
One night after Bigger has driven the girl home from a party, he helps her stagger to her room. She drunkenly insists on his staying there a while. The girl's blind mother enters and, in desperately trying to prevent the girl from giving his presence away, Bigger accidentally smothers her to death. A reporter later discovers that Bigger has burned the girl's body in the furnace, and the Negro is captured in an empty house. A Darrowesque lawyer (Ray Collins) makes a plea for Bigger's life on the ground that racial oppression must inevitably lead to twisted, savage psychologies. And Bigger is convicted, sentenced to the chair.
In the lawyer's speech the play shifts from art to propaganda. For obviously the true defense of Bigger would lie in considering the actions of the neurotic victim of his accidental crime. But the play's propaganda, like its art, is telling.
Canada Lee, a Negro fighter, musician and actor of the order of Robeson, got his euphonious name from the late, famed prizefight announcer Joe Humphreys, who couldn't be bothered with Canada's real name: Lionel Canegata. Canada was born of West Indian parents in Manhattan's seamy San Juan Hill district (the Sixties near the Hudson). As a boy he got a reputation for licking toughs, including members of a Harlem gang called "the syndicate," and studied the violin under Negro Composer J. Rosamond Johnson. While still in grammar school, Canada ran away from home, became a stable boy and jockey in Canada, moved back to Harlem after a couple of years. He won 90 out of 100 amateur fights and the national amateur lightweight title, turned pro in 1926, was heading for the welterweight title in 1930 when he got socked so hard in the left eye that today it is almost blind. He had made $75,000 fighting, had blown it away big-timing in Harlem. Afterwards he led an unsuccessful jazz band, hit the breadlines, got into Harlem's YMCA theatre and later the Federal Theatre. He first played under Orson Welles's direction as Banquo in the Federal Theatre's Negro Macbeth.
Since then he has been commentator on the radio program of John Kirby's swing band and opened a fried-chicken joint—The Chicken Coop—in Harlem. "You know how it is," he says, "if I had my life to live over again I'd go back to the ring."