Marin Theatre Company Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis didn’t mince words when he introduced the opening night production of Native Son, Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s hugely influential 1940 novel.

“It is unbelievable that this amazing piece of art that was created in 1940 is still so important and relevant,” Minadakis said. “It’s still so important that we built our 50th season around it. It’s important to keep pushing the conversation forward and making sure that our society is more humane.”

It was a bold statement to center MTC’s golden anniversary around Kelley’s adaption of Wright’s intense, suffocatingly bleak tome about young African-American Bigger Thomas’ downward spiral, as the aspiring pilot is stifled at every turn by society’s deep-seated racism, concluding, that “When you look in the mirror, you only see what they tell you you is.”

But it’s paid off in spades – the impact was palpable in the audience’s near-breathless exchanges as they exited the theater on opening night.

And the subsequent glowing reviews poured in soon after, with the Marin Independent Journal’s Sam Hurwitt calling it a “devastating gut punch of a play” in which society “is all too ready to believe the worst about (Thomas). That’s just one of the reasons why it’s so sobering to revisit this story now, because that readiness to demonize doesn’t seem to have changed much.”

For Talkin’ Broadway, Richard Connema writes that Jerod Haynes as Bigger “gives an intuitive performance that borders on a mishmash of rage and terror,” adding that he “skillfully plays the character with a creepy expression and a mysterious stare.” Connema also credits Kelley with the insertion of a new character, William Hartfield as The Black Rat, the subconscious of Bigger who both drives him toward poor decisions and seeks to help him reverse course.

And at the Huffington Post, former San Francisco magazine senior arts editor Pamela Feinsilber uses her Native Son review to throw broader praise at the Miller Ave. theatrical juggernaut, calling MTC “the most consistently excellent theater company in the Bay Area,” where “audiences have come to expect outstanding acting, directing, set and costume design, sound and lighting in any production we see here in Mill Valley.”

Feinsilber also hails Minadakis for his effort to “showcase plays with African American themes, by African American playwrights,” particularly those of Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose In the Red and Brown Water debuted in the Bay Area at MTC in 2010, long before he became a household name for his play that served as the foundation for the Academy Award-nominated film Moonlight.

To Feinsilber’s point, Minadakis noted in his opening remarks that MTC participated in the Gaslight Project, in which theaters around the country put on lights outside on January 19 to “create a light for farm times ahead and to make, or renew, a pledge to stand for and protect the values of inclusion, participation and compassion for everyone regardless of race, class, religion, country of origin, immigration status, (dis)ability, age, gender identity or sexual orientation.” 

As for Native Son itself, Feinsilber calls the play “gripping, thanks to its intensity, pacing, and fine acting,” and she says Kelley’s “imaginative conceit” that “shuffles time, characters, and events,” gives the audience “tumbled shards of Bigger’s life rather than a straightforward rendering. This approach makes a plot that seems rather simplistic—certainly when compared to the plays mentioned above—appear more complex.”

The 411: Native Son runs at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., through Feb. 12. MORE INFO & TIX.

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