Through Sunday, Sep. 29, various times, $15+
Paul Green Theatre, Chapel Hill
As Native Son, the play based on Richard Wright’s landmark 1939 novel about systemic racism, runs at Paul Green Theatre, it’s worth reflecting on the show’s deep ties—for good and for ill—to the UNC theater company that eventually become PlayMakers, to one of its most famous playwrights, and to the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Wright’s time here produced the original 1941 Broadway adaptation of his book, but, as if in illustration of its themes, the author also barely made it out of town alive.
Paul Green was one of the Carolina Playmakers’ first-generation playwrights. In the summer of 1940, he invited Wright to Chapel Hill to collaborate on turning his novel into a script for Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre in New York. But Chapel Hill didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet.
While UNC’s theater faculty (including legendary founding playwright Frederick “Proff” Koch) regularly invited African-American artists such as Zora Neale Hurston and Richard B. Harrison to campus to lecture and perform, “Jim Crow segregation remained the law of the land, and UNC was still a segregated institution,” says retired UNC historian Cecelia Moore. “All of the student body and faculty was white.”
Under the law, Wright could not stay at The Carolina Inn or any other Chapel Hill hotel. He had to find lodging in a Carrboro boarding house instead. Wright was not only denied service at restaurants, but he nearly had the same experience at Green’s house.
In an interview with historian James Spence, Green recalled his housekeeper saying, “That’s a black man, you’re gonna eat with him?” Whereupon Green admonished her, “You just forget and behave yourself.”
But Wright faced a graver threat the night before he left the region. After Green’s secretary, a white female student named Ouida Campbell, threw a party for Wright in Carrboro, local white supremacists—including Green’s cousin, Hugh Wilson—met and planned to hunt Wright down.
“They had guns and rope, and Green went and tried to disperse this mob,” says playwright Ian Finley, whose historical drama on Wright and Green, Native, has toured the South. Green told Spence that he spent the last night before Wright left in a cotton patch behind Wright’s boarding house, “determined that if anything happened, they’d have to kill me.”
But Wright’s friendship with Green didn’t survive Native Son’s Broadway debut. The two could never reconcile their takes on Wright’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, and the meaning of his crime.
“In Green’s humanist view, we control our destiny,” says Finley. “In Wright’s deterministic view, society determines what we become. Society made Bigger this monster, so society needs to own up to how monstrous it is. It came down to the last page of the script. They didn’t use Green’s ending, and the friendship they had just fell apart.”
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