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"Hard Medicine to Take"

Antaeus Theatre Company’s ‘Native Son’ Delves into Heavy and Timely Themes


L-R: Brandon Rachal, Mildred Marie Langford, Victoria Platt, Jon Chaffin and Ned Mochel in “Native Son” at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Photo by Craig Schwartz Photography.

In an era of increased focus on social inequity and strife, Antaeus Theatre Company’s production of Native Son—onstage at the Kirk Douglas Theatre April 18–28, 2019—delivers a powerful message of what is possible when society and our communities fail to acknowledge the flaws in the system.

The play follows Bigger Thomas, an African American man living in 1930s Chicago. But as he starts a new job that seems to promise greater success and acceptance, Bigger can’t escape malevolent societal forces and expectations that eventually see him take violent and tragic action as his world unravels.

This adaptation—written by playwright Nambi E. Kelley and based on Richard Wright’s 1940 novel—can be seen as somewhat of a departure from Antaeus’ usual fare. Antaeus is known for productions of classical theatre—think Shakespeare and Ibsen. But what makes a piece a classic isn’t when it was written—as explained by the Artistic Directors of Antaeus—but the historical and cultural significance of its themes.

A lot of the things that have to be done in this play are raw and tug at the history of America.

Native Son is a classic American novel, and it’s more timely than one would ever think unfortunately, said former Antaeus Artistic Director Rob Nagle. [The play] was a read that we could not put down when we got ahold of a copy of it. Kelley’s adaptation distills the scope of the original 500-page novel into a 90 minute, non-linear drama.

It’s about how fear and non-acceptance and oppression can take you to the depths of where you never thought you’d go, explained director Andi Chapman It’s about empathy.

Even with the critical acclaim Antaeus’ production garnered, Chapman highlighted the difficulties of producing a show with such intense themes. Reactions were mixed in the sense that it was heartbreaking and hard to take—it’s very raw. Positive—in that it was received very well—but it was hard medicine to take, said Chapman of the show’s initial run.

Nagle echoed a similar sentiment: audiences responded with shock, and horror, and profound movement, he explained. I think people were surprised with how much it spoke to today’s audiences despite being written in the 1940s.

Nonetheless, Chapman thinks that the play is more an opportunity for empathy than a shocking cautionary tale. What Nambi is saying is ‘America, look at this man who has been oppressed his entire life, and I am asking you to step into his shoes and see the world through his lens and see what you would do,’ she explained. It’s a totally different take than what Richard Wright had, which was trying to show a monster that was created by oppression.

Achieving this empathetic perspective meant building the play on an empathetic foundation. A lot of the things that have to be done in this play are raw and tug at the history of America, so we had to come together as a family, said Chapman.

Indeed, coming together is what Block Party, a celebration of L.A.’s diverse theatre community, is all about: Every neighborhood has its own collective ensemble of some kind, or several of them; the theatre community is vast, said Nagle. Antaeus itself was created in 1991 as a project of Center Theatre Group artists who felt that there was an opportunity to create a world-class theatre company from the immensity of raw talent and remarkable artists who call L.A. home.

For Antaeus today, that means being a theatre that is not only good in the classics…but also a company that is skilled at bringing new works to a new community, explained Nagle. I’d like to see the theatre reflect the community it’s in.

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