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'Native Son': Antaeus Theatre gives new voice to Richard Wright's enduring questions

'Native Son': Antaeus Theatre gives new voice to Richard Wright's enduring questions
A fugitive murderer (Jon Chaffin, left) finds the tables turned by the patsy (Matthew Grondin) he tried to frame at the urging of his fractured alter ego (Noel Arthur) in Antaeus Theatre Company’s Southern California premiere of “Native Son.” (Geoffrey Wade Photography)

Among the many unsettling questions raised by the murderous protagonist of Antaeus Theatre Company's electrifying Southern California premiere of "Native Son," the least difficult to answer is why he would commit such horrific crimes.

The far more troubling question is: Why wouldn't he?

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As profound as it is disturbing, Nambi E. Kelley's new adaptation of Richard Wright's groundbreaking 1940 novel leaves no daylight between rapist-murderer Bigger Thomas and the post-Jim Crow society that shapes him.

As in the novel, Bigger (Jon Chaffin) and his crimes are the end product of a collective black "double consciousness" — the awareness of being simultaneously but incompatibly American and Negro — that Wright regarded as a deep-seated psychological legacy of slavery.

Taking a cue from the defining metaphor in the novel's opening chapter, Kelley adds a new character, the Black Rat (Noel Arthur) — a physical manifestation of the detached voice inside Bigger's head — to articulate this fractured black identity. "I know what I'm doing. But I can't help nothin,'" declares the Black Rat, nailing the split between the Bigger seen by white society and the way he sees himself. "Like somebody step in my skin, start acting for me."

Where Wright's bestseller takes more than 500 pages of finely honed narrative to chart the course of Bigger's rampage through 1930s Chicago, Kelley's script pares the key episodes down to a surreal 90-minute plunge into the kaleidoscopic jumble of Bigger's interior life.

Razor-sharp focus and clarity from director Andi Chapman and her stellar Antaeus ensemble steer us through wild leaps in time between 20-year-old Bigger's brutal crimes, memories of his damaged childhood and clumsy attempts to evade capture. Forgoing the company's usual double-casting practice, the supporting ensemble seamlessly integrates Antaeus veterans Ellis Greer, Gigi Bermingham and Ned Mochel with newcomers Mildred Marie Langford, Matthew Grondin, Victoria Platt and Brandon Rachal.

"Native Son" makes no excuses for Bigger's brutality, but seeing the world through the eyes of a human being scorned as an animal forces us to confront a chilling, all-too relevant dilemma: When the social contract offers no hope for those at the bottom, why should they play by its rules?

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Native Son’

Where: Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through June 3. Additional performances 8 p.m. Monday and May 31

Tickets: $30-$34

Info: (818) 506-1983 or www.antaeus.org

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.

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