Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Hattiloo Theatre, 656 Marshall. Tickets are $12-$25. Call 901-525-0009.
To understand the rage of Bigger Thomas, the central figure in Richard Wright’s classic novel “Native Son,” one first has to understand his environment.
For him, Chicago of the 1930s is little more than a violent, inhuman cage. The poverty and racial oppression bearing down on him strip him of any ability to make rational or moral decisions. Wright never intended for us to like or even forgive Bigger as he becomes a monster. Instead, the author wanted us to fear the poison that turns Jekylls into Hydes. For Bigger, that poison is society itself.
The case that Wright so controversially spelled out in what James Baldwin dubbed a protest novel is slightly more palatable in the author’s 1941 stage adaptation, co-written with playwright Paul Green.
That version, running through Sunday at Hattiloo Theatre and directed by Patricia Smith, works harder at asking for our compassion.
Originally commissioned by the progressive Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater, Wright and Green probably realized that a stage version needed a more sympathetic Bigger.
Actor Keith LaMount, who brought similar insight and gravitas to Smith’s staging of “A Raisin in the Sun” in 2001, creates a polarized character who stumbles between worlds. In black circles, he’s hot-tempered and predatory, a man who carries a gun and a knife and is quick to use either. Around white people, he’s reduced to a quivering bundle of nerves and shuffling subservience.
In a fearful moment, Bigger accidentally kills a rich young white woman. He later claims that the murder gave him, for the first time in his life, a sense of freedom. But the audience sees something far more pathetic. Wright’s moment of horrific revelation appears more like a lapse of judgment.
In the novel, a psychologically unhinged Bigger later rapes and murders his own girlfriend. The stage version pins her death squarely on society’s shoulders; she’s shot by authorities who are looking for the fugitive.
The final courtroom drama hinges upon a popular progressive talking point. A public defender (Bart Mallard) in the style of Clarence Darrow proposes that Bigger is redeemable on the grounds that society has made him what he is — a victim of his environment.
Perhaps the most difficult task any audience member will have at “Native Son” is imagining an era when that argument might work at a murder trial. Thanks to generations of people fighting for equality, characters such as Bigger Thomas are now harder to contextualize or excuse.
At the same time, many young black males are still growing into angry young men — native sons whose reasons for lashing out are no less related to their environment.