Tales From the American Midwest

01/29/2017 06:06 pm ET

Mistaken and switched identities are a popular writer's tool for highlighting how quickly one person's fate can be changed. For better or worse, people suddenly find themselves being treated differently.

  • In Gilbert and Sullivan's 1878 operetta, HMS Pinafore, a bumboat woman known as Little Buttercup confesses that, back when she was a nurse, she mixed up two babies. One became a simple sailor aboard the HMS Pinafore named Ralph Rackstraw; the other became his commanding officer, Captain Corcoran.
  • In 1988's Big Business, Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin played two sets of identical twins that had been separated at birth by a stressed-out nurse at the hospital in Jupiter Hollow.

One of the entries in 2017's SFIndieFest's shorts program entitled Adulting is a charming film by Joe Garrity entitled Twinsburg. The plot is fairly simple. Each year thousands of identical twins meet up to attend the world's largest gathering of twins in a small Midwestern town that was founded by identical twin brothers. Although the event is filled with twin-related traditions, many attendees wearing matching clothes, and numerous sets of twins who have spent their lives as local novelty acts, the annual reunion has a darker side to it. Some twins realize they want to uncouple and strike out on their own.

For the sentimental Jerry (Joe Garrity), a reunion with his brother Paul (Phil Garrity) comes with a bittersweet cost. After moving to the West Coast, Paul has lost the thrill of always being identified as a twin. Without Paul enthusiastically by his side, Jerry is somewhat dazed and confused.

January brought me in touch with two deeply poignant tales that begin and end in Chicago. Both stories revolve around young men who have been outcasts for much of their lives. Both stories examine how people handle stress, confrontation, and rejection. As we struggle to cope with the Trump administration's desire to revert to a worldview dominated by white male privilege, both stories take on surprising relevance.

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James Choi's new film, Empty Space, focuses on the misadventures of Tom (Merrick Robison), an obese young man who describes himself as "387 pounds with the metabolism of a manatee." After years of being bullied and rejected while growing up in Chicago, he decides to seek refuge at his grandmother's farm outside the small town of Protection, Illinois.

Tom (Merrick Robison) checks himself out in the mirror in a scene from <em><strong>Empty Space</strong></em>
Tom (Merrick Robison) checks himself out in the mirror in a scene from Empty Space

When Tom ventures out to find a job, all he can get hired for is washing dishes in the local cafe. It doesn't take long for Hank (Ryan David Heywood), the town's mean drunk, to start humiliating Tom or for Hank's emotionally abused daughter, Rebecca (Madysen Frances), to start taking advantage of the fat new arrival in town.

Tom (Merrick Robison) and Rebecca (Madysen Frances) share a laugh in a scene from <strong><em>Empty Space</em></strong>
Tom (Merrick Robison) and Rebecca (Madysen Frances) share a laugh in a scene from Empty Space

Tom's co-worker, Gladys (Suzanne C. Johnson), has a long history of quitting her job but eventually returning to work for the insensitive and verbally abusive Lloyd (David McLauchlin). However, when Tom stops into the local laundromat after a horrible day at work, he encounters a young blind woman folding towels at the front counter. Lilly (Elizabeth Stenholt) has just moved out of her parents' home into her own apartment and is determined to live life on her own terms.

Tom (Merrick Robison) and Lilly (Elizabeth Stenholt) become two unlikely rural lovers in <strong><em>Empty Space</em></strong
Tom (Merrick Robison) and Lilly (Elizabeth Stenholt) become two unlikely rural lovers in Empty Space

Even if she can't see, Lilly hears and smells everything around her and refuses to treat her blindness as a crippling condition. As a result, she's not about to take shit from anyone. With one person severely lacking in social skills and the other adamant about standing up for herself, the awkward friendship that blossoms between Tom and Lilly traverses a tough course. Each, however, is capable of and willing to learn from the other if it will make them stronger, happier, and less lonely.

Empty Space is hardly what one could call a stereotypical "meet cute" love affair. But it has a tenderness at its core that Choi uses very well to win a viewer's sympathy. The outdoor shots (in winter as well as spring) depict a nearly barren landscape where the odds of finding love are stacked high against anyone looking for it. His two romantic leads (especially Robison) do fine work as a pair of unconventional lovers who are often assumed to be losers.  Here's the trailer:

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As one watches Empty Space, it's impossible to ignore how white its characters are and how relatively free their lives are from the crushing pressures of poverty. That's hardly the case in Native Son, a new play by Nambi Kelly which received its West Coast premiere from the Marin Theatre Company in a haunting production forcefully directed by Seret Scott on a skeletal set designed by Giulio Cesare Perrone.

The action takes place in "a labyrinth of Chicago's Black Belt and surrounding areas as it appears inside Bigger Thomas's mind during the split second when he runs from his crime, remembers, imagines, two cold and snowy winter days in December 1939 and beyond." The aforementioned protagonist, Bigger Thomas (Jerod Haynes), is a muscular black man who lands a job as a chauffeur for Chicago's white and wealthy Dalton family (whose adventurous daughter has an appetite for forbidden delights).

Jerod Haynes, Rosie Hallett, and Courtney Walsh in a scene from <strong><em>Native Son</em></strong>
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
Jerod Haynes, Rosie Hallett, and Courtney Walsh in a scene from Native Son

Not only is Mary Dalton (Rosie Hallett) physically attracted to Bigger, she desperately wants to experience life outside of her family's privileged bubble. She begs Bigger to take her to a South Side restaurant where she can taste "the kind of food black people eat." Her well-intentioned boyfriend, Jan (Adam Magill), is an idealistic Communist sympathizer who prefers to call Bigger "comrade" and who insists on driving. Nor does Jan have any objection to sharing his booze with Mary and Bigger (so that the three of them can have a good time on equal footing).

Rosie Hallet, Jerod Haynes, and Adam Magill in a scene from <em><strong>Native Son</strong></em>
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
Rosie Hallet, Jerod Haynes, and Adam Magill in a scene from Native Son

By the time Bigger brings Mary back home, she's falling down drunk and feeling very amorous. As Bigger tries to get her under control, he hears Mrs. Dalton (who is blind) calling out to her daughter. Desperate to shush Mary and avoid being discovered, he straddles the young woman and puts a pillow over her face. When Mary's mother goes back to her room and Bigger lifts the pillow, he discovers that Mary has suffocated.

What follows is a nightmarish montage of scenes in which Bigger tries to figure out how to dispose of Mary's body, visits his family and argues with his mother (C. Kelly Wright), runs from a private investigator (Patrick Kelly Jones), and fucks his girlfriend (Ryan Nicole Austin) before killing her. The degree to which an audience will sympathize with a man who has killed two women depends on their respective levels of empathy, objectivity, and white guilt.

First published in 1940, Native Son sold 250,000 copies through the Book of the Month Club. Thanks to its popularity, its author, Richard Wright, rocketed to fame, becoming the nation's first best-selling (and wealthiest) African-American author. In 1941, Wright received the Spingarn Award from the NAACP. In 1951, a film version of Native Son was released in theatres. In 1986, another film version of Wright's novel featured Matt Dillon, Victor Love, Carroll Baker, and Oprah Winfrey.

In adapting Wright's novel for the stage, Kelly faced a peculiar challenge, which she explains in the following clip. Although her solution turned to be a structural trick, the playwright stresses that "any time you bring an audience inside the mind of a black man, it is a revolutionary act.”

Kelley's stage adaptation of Native Son received its world premiere from Chicago’s Court Theatre on September 20, 2014. Her most radical change in transforming Wright's novel into a stage play was adding the character of The Black Rat who, as Laura A. Brueckner explains, "alternatively serves as Bigger’s survival instinct and inner truth, thus dramatizing the intense struggle between the man [Bigger] would like to be and the fearful figure that racial oppression would twist him into."

Jerod Haynes (Bigger Thomas) and William Hartfield (The Black Rat) in a scene from <strong><em>Native Son</em></strong> 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
Jerod Haynes (Bigger Thomas) and William Hartfield (The Black Rat) in a scene from Native Son 

In his note from the artistic director, MTC's Jasson Minadakis writes:

“Eight years ago, on the inauguration of President Obama, we opened a play by Athol Fugard (My Children! My Africa!), a beautiful, soaring story about hope. This inauguration season, we open a play that takes us back to 1940: a time that, for some, looks little different than our own 2017. This play, and the state of our nation, reminds us that we have not been listening to many of our sisters and brothers. This play, and our time, demands we be our own hope, demands we make the change we believe in.”
Black Rat (William Hartfield) eavesdrops on a scene with Bigger's family in a scene from <strong><em>Native Son</em></strong>
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
Black Rat (William Hartfield) eavesdrops on a scene with Bigger's family in a scene from Native Son
“Nambi first began writing Native Son because she needed to use her art to personally respond to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin killing. Her voice has fused with Richard Wright’s to create a new vision of the struggles of our children of color, of our children of poverty, of our excluded citizens. It is time for us to see the iron boxes that our young people of color and all our young people growing up in poverty are forced into when they look at the world and hear how the world views them. We are seeing intolerance resurging in our country in alarming displays of cruelty and ignorance, in the casually horrific language of people with power and platforms. We can no longer allow any of our children to live in fear for fear breeds misunderstanding, misunderstanding breeds desperation, and desperation breeds violence.”
William Hartfield (The Black Rat) and Jerod Haynes (Bigger Thomas) in a scene from <strong><em>Native Son</em></strong>
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
William Hartfield (The Black Rat) and Jerod Haynes (Bigger Thomas) in a scene from Native Son

Under Seret Scott's taut direction, MTC's ensemble performs with admirable commitment. Rosie Hallett and Courtney Walsh make the Dalton family as sympathetic as possible while Patrick Kelly Jones and Adam Magill deliver polar opposite portraits of white stereotypes ranging from the sympathetic liberal (Jan) to the zealously bigoted investigator (Britten). C. Kelly Wright has some powerful moments as Bigger's mother, Hannah, along with Dane Troy as his brother, Buddy, and Ryan Nicole Austin, who is double cast as Bigger's sister (Vera) and his girlfriend (Bessie).

The show's core, however, rests on the angry and confused shoulders of Jerod Haynes as its protagonist and William Hartfield as Bigger's inner voice (The Black Rat). Separately and together, they deliver a powerhouse portrait of a man who has suddenly found himself struggling to breathe, knowing that he is doomed, and desperate to find a way out of the personal hell into which he has been thrust. These two gifted artists deliver performances that won't easily be forgotten. Here's the trailer:

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