Our Man in Arlington

April 16, 2009 3:43 PM0 comments

The American Century Theatre opened Richard Wright’s searing play, Native Son , on Tuesday at Arlington’s Gunston Theater.

It is a play that all interested in the agonizing history of African-Americans in the United States should see.

The American Century Theater, as many of you know, is another of Arlington’s dramatic arts treasures . Led by Jack Marshall, TACT has been staging many of the great, but often neglected, plays of the mid-twentieth century for the past fifteen years.

As stated on TACT’s web page, “The American Century Theaters mission is to promote 20th century theater as a vital part of our cultural dialogue. Our mission is based on the firm conviction that this theatrical repertoire — influential and critically acclaimed dramas, comedies, and teleplays first produced during what Henry Luce called the American Century — portrays a uniquely American vision that is vital to our shared cultural heritage. In today’s increasingly Balkanized society, finding this common ground has become essential.”

Native Son is based on Richard Wright’s great novel of the same name. It is the story of Bigger Thomas’ a doomed young black man-boy living in utter poverty in the Chicago tenements of the mid-twentieth century. Bigger ultimately commits an utterly heartless murder and is ultimately condemned to death and hanged.

The principal point of the book and the play is that a fundamentally racist society has condemned the Bigger Thomases of the world to utter hopelessness. While it does not condone the murder as such, it does imply that Bigger had little choice in a society that placed him on the bottom rung of humanity.

The brutal and unrelenting theme of the play is, of course, that American society had placed African Americans at the very bottom of a rotten heap, with virtually no hope of redemption. There would never be and could never be a black at even the middle ring of society, much less at the Olympian heights of a Barak Obama.

The play, on a more positive note, dramatizes how much things have changed in the past sixty-eight years since it was first produced in 1941. We cannot be complacent, however. We still have a long way to go.

The play was written by the classic American playwright Paul Green, in collaboration with Richard Wright. Apparently this was not a match made in heaven as they constantly fought. It was directed by the great Orson Welles and starred Canada Lee, who the New York Times called “the greatest Negro actor of his era and one of the finest actors in the country.”

Here the title role is performed by JaBen A. Early, an excellent young actor who plays the difficult role very well.

It is a play well worth seeing, and I strongly encourage you to do so. As TACT says in its own literature about the play, “This is a play every American needs to experience. It is a play for lovers of drama, literature, and ideas; for those who believe what appears on stage should be important, challenging, and provocative; and for students of history, race relations, American society and theater. It is a play that echoes with the words of one of our nation’s most important novels, and the conflicts of more than two centuries.

It will run through May 9 at Arlington’s Gunston. You can buy tickets on TACT’s web page, www.americancentury.org.

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