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Hattiloo's Native Son; Voices of the South's Threads

Hattiloo takes on Wright; Voices of the South pulls Threads.

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Bigger Thomas, the young, hotheaded protagonist of Richard Wright's novel Native Son, never had an honest chance. He was poor and black with an eighth-grade education and a juvenile record. He was destined for either prison or an early grave from page one. If Bigger hadn't been electrocuted for the (trumped up) rape and (actual but accidental) murder of a wealthy white girl, he would have eventually lost his temper and assaulted the wrong person. Or he would have gotten himself murdered in a botched armed robbery. No matter how he played his hand, the cards were stacked against Bigger, and Wright's damaged antihero was going down hard.

Unlike Bigger Thomas, there's hope for Hattiloo Theatre's production of Native Son, which is rough in some places, riveting in others. Although some of the adapted dialogue sounds dated and contrived, the show remains effective, because, 70 years on, Wright's story is absolutely current. The cultural dynamics the author describes with such unflinching clarity have shifted, but they are still firmly in place.

Native Son is set in the 1930s, although this isn't obvious at the Hattiloo. Director Patricia Smith's stark production succeeds in spite of having no clear aesthetic unity or an apparent desire to evoke images of Depression-era Chicago. Strong ideas mingle with strong performances by a uniformly excellent cast to keep the audience engaged even when credibility is strained.

Wright's novel is a true landmark. It changed the way we discuss race in America. Hattiloo's serviceable hodgepodge of a production reminds us, sometimes quite effectively, how little that means in a country where one in nine African-American males between 18 and middle age winds up behind bars.

Through April 21st

I'm a fan of Jerre Dye's work as an actor, director, artist, and adapter of stories. He's also a strong writer with a unique gift for inserting vivid imagery into his dialogue. Dye's collaborators in the Voices of the South theater company are also fans and clearly love speaking their friend's words. I usually love to hear them spoken as well, but as the first segment of Threads, a collection of seven short solo and duet pieces, drew to a close, I wondered if I might be able to slip out the back of Theatre South without anybody noticing. Fortunately, "Luvie," a nicely acted but heavy-handed opener about the strained relationship between an adult woman, her frail mother, and a mouthy hospital worker, isn't more than 10 minutes long. For fans of good acting and strong characters, the rest of the evening is pure joy.

Threads is the latest example of how Voices of the South includes its audiences in the creative process. Dye wants to take characters from two of these scenes and develop them into a longer work for the company's 2013-14 season. At the end of the evening, audience members vote on which characters they'd most like to see brought together. It's an interesting formal problem for the playwright ... and a unique opportunity for theatregoers. It's also entirely unnecessary. Like a good short story collection, Threads is completely satisfying as it is, without the benefit of a unifying narrative.

Threads was written for Voices of the South's regular company members and is a nearly perfect showcase for individual and collective talents. Jenny Odle Madden is especially engaging as Shane, a frustrated trophy wife with a taste for Jack Daniels monologuing into her vanity mirror. Steve Swift and Todd Berry do strong work in "I Reject You," a play about faith and family, and Cecelia Wingate nearly steals the show as a mother who's hit upon an effective way to let her almost-30-year-old son know it's time for him to move out and move on.

But the night's best moments go to Swift. In a piece titled "Leonard," he plays a beautician preparing a wig for one of his deceased clients. As he fluffs and curls, Swift considers the relationship between Memphis, Tennessee, and its Egyptian namesake, the city of the dead, where deceased souls go to wait and be weighed. That sounds just about right.

Through April 18th

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