NAMBI E. KELLEY
By Khalid Y. Long and Isaiah M. Wooden
Who are the playwrights – past and present – that influence your work?
I have been deeply influenced by Goddess/Newest Ancestor Ntozake Shange. I believe my early plays were straight riffs on her voice as it was intersecting with my own. I used to really love Suzan-Lori Parks, her early stuff really ignited my creative spirit. Basically, any writers that were creating plays not set in a living room, I was all for! Plays set in living rooms also inspired me, just not as richly as the plays that were pushing the envelope as far as form, content, and theme.
In developing the adaptation, why was it important to create a character, The Black Rat, that would give voice and body to Bigger's inner life?
The Black Rat is a manifestation of W.E.B. Du Bois' theory of double consciousness. In my intention to give Bigger back to his own story, as opposed to what Richard Wright crafts, which is to present Bigger to white people as what they have created, I am attempting to show you who he is from the inside. Not a beast, but a boy caught in a circumstance beyond him that had he been in a different era or time, his intelligence and problem-solving skills would have made him a C.E.O.
Richard Wright was critiqued for his depiction of Black womanhood in Native Son (as well as his other works). Was this an area of concern for you in adapting the work?
Thank you for this question! I saw Richard Wright's depiction of the women as a challenge to deepen the work on the adaptation. There are whole drafts that exist of my manuscript where the women have these huge monologues that take over the entire play! But my dramaturg let me know that I was writing a whole different script with those pieces, so I had to take the bare elements of them, pair them down, and use the essentials to carve out real ladies.
Why do you think contemporary audiences continue to connect so deeply with Wright's novel?
What I can speak more directly to is my work on the adaptation, which has vastly different intentions from what Wright was creating. His work was to depict Bigger the animal or beast. My work is to depict Bigger the boy. My play is a conversation between Richard Wright and W.E.B. Du Bois about the effects of double consciousness on the Black psyche. I have crafted the character of The Black Rat to speak to how Bigger sees himself through the eyes of whites, yet because ultimately a doubled consciousness is designed for our survival, The Black Rat is not the devil on Bigger's shoulder, but the survival instinct in him that fights to save his life. As it functions in my play, what is meant for someone's harm turns out to be their salvation.