When people talk about the excitement of live theater, they’re not usually referring to the kind of drama that takes place when a company has to switch scripts three weeks before a long-planned opening. But that’s what happened to Seattle’s Intiman Theater, when playwright Cheryl L. West withdrew her adaptation of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” in late September, due to a billing dispute with Intiman, Wright’s estate, and the Paul Green Foundation (Green was the book’s original co-adaptor).
A substitute play wouldn’t do: “Native Son” was chosen years ago to fill the third slot of Intiman’s five-year “American Cycle,” a survey of classic American texts. Discussions, lectures, and community events exploring the novel were already under way. The cast was two weeks into rehearsals. So Intiman asked director Kent Gash to rework “Native Son,” with only one extra week of preparation. The suspense on opening night was palpable: Could Intiman and artistic director Bartlett Sher pull it off?
Anticlimactically: No. At least not entirely. While the Gash version of the script is a mishmash of erratically paced scenes and performance-arty touches (projections, musical interludes, and a dance-like prologue and epilogue), flashes of vividness periodically ignite the 90-minute play. And the performance of Ato Essandoh as the prototypical angry young black man Bigger Thomas is so violently true to the written original that you walk away from the theater pondering the enduring power of Wright’s prophetic, problematic novel.
If only this stage version re-created or re-imagined that power, instead of merely reminding us of it. But there’s too much that’s off balance here. Some scenes play like kitchen-sink drama (like the tenement opening where we first find Bigger, killing a rat with a pan); others dwell self-consciously on images (an inadvertently silly nightmare sequence in which Bigger’s two murder victims — one coughing up stage blood — claw at him through his prison bars). Bigger’s sickening second crime is too hastily enacted, while the courtroom scene drags on long after its dramatic momentum has flagged.
These inconsistencies prevent the production from examining the more interesting (and puzzling) aspects of Wright’s novel. Did the author believe Bigger was so victimized he had no choice but to reinvent himself through violence? Didn’t some of Bigger’s real-life contemporaries, like Wright himself, manage to escape this fate? Why is it that the character Max, a white lawyer, seems to understand Bigger better than Bigger himself?
Around the edges of this spotty production are many of the fine touches we’ve come to expect from Intiman: a clever, functional set by Edward E. Haynes Jr.; atmospheric onstage accompaniment by Chic Street Man; and solid perfs by Myra Lucretia Taylor as Bigger’s beaten-down mother and Carol Roscoe as the clueless, privileged white woman who unknowingly seals Bigger’s destiny.
Then there’s Essandoh, who touches some deep vein of sulfurous, molten power to erupt into Bigger onstage. It’s an impressive performance, belonging to some more unified, more convincing production.