The Art of Collaboration: Native Son on Stage and Screen

February 23, 2018

By Nancy Kuhl


Richard Wright’s Native Son on Stage and Screen

Richard Wright’s classic novel, a bestseller when it was published in 1940, explores the conditions of the life of Bigger Thomas, a poor, black 19-year-old, and the aftermath of Bigger’s accidental murder of Mary Dalton, a wealthy, white college student, culminating in Bigger’s trial, where he is defended by a communist lawyer. Wright wrote the novel to confront readers with the brutality of poverty and white supremacy in Depression-era Chicago. Native Son encapsulates the warning that the structures of white supremacy entrap young black men like Bigger Thomas at the peril of all—wealthy families like the Daltons, and impoverished women like Bessie Mears, Bigger’s girlfriend and second victim. After the Book of the Month Club selected the novel for March 1940, Harper printed 170,000 copies, with the first 50,000 selling within two months. Collaborators quickly stepped forward to work with Wright in developing the story for both stage and screen. Both the stage adaptation, produced in 1941, and the screen adaptation, which premiered a decade later, struggled to capture the complexity of Wright’s original portrayal. With anti-communism on the rise and a public seldom eager to confront issues of inequality, Wright and his collaborators fought to find a place for Bigger’s story on Broadway and in Hollywood. (MB)

See Also: + The Art of Collaboration: The Children’s Books of Russell and Lillian Hoban, 1961-1972 and + The Art of Collaboration: Studies in Creativity