There’s been some controversy about the slowly growing trend of presenting plays with characters originally conceived as white being played by actors of color. The recent all black cast on Broadway of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof comes to mind and reminds us that critic John Lahr with a blog comment last December called for “a moratorium on all those infernal all-black productions of Tennessee Williams plays unless we can have their equal in folly; all white productions of August Wilson.” Well, that set off a firestorm of protest, but Emily Mann who was directing this Streetcar refused to take the bait, and when asked for her opinion on the legitimacy of such a multicultural endeavor, her response was short and sweet: “Tennessee always wanted this to happen.”
And she should know, for her long history with Williams goes all the way back to 1979 when she directed The Glass Menagerie at the Guthrie in Minneapolis.The reviews were strong, and led to her being asked by the playwright to work with him on his current project at the time, A House Not Meant to Stand. He asked her to come and live with him in Key West, but it was near the end of his life, the play was in need of major surgery, and she didn’t know how to help him, so she refused. But she said he had hoped to have a production of color for Streetcar as far back as the late 1950s. “He kept giving permission to do this idea,” she said, “because he’d always known, as someone who knows New Orleans, how right this is.”
So I come at last to the happening at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway. Blair Underwood, Nicole Ari Parker, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Wood Harris and Carmen de Lavallade, a multi-racial quintet of prize winning and critically honored artists have gathered to give us their take on Williams’ magnum opus, under Emily Mann’s crystal clear directorial eye and ear. I found the results shattering, and race had nothing to do with it.
Except for dropping “Kowalski” as Stanley’s last name, I didn’t notice any textual changes. You have to look thoroughly through the Playbill to note that the setting is now listed as “The French Quarter, New Orleans. 1952”. As the play was originally performed and set in 1947, Ms. Mann moved it forward 5 years I would assume in order to make possible the background in which we are to believe that the DuBois sisters could have been raised in a mansion called Belle Rive during the 1940s, bought with the moneys earned by their grandfather. Was this possible for a black family in the deep south? She asks us to believe it could.
The Moon Lake Casino which figures in Streetcar, The Glass Menagerie and Summer and Smoke does not read like the sort of romantic dance hall which would accommodate multiracial patrons in the earlier period, but the French Quarter, in which Williams himself lived in the mid-1940s, was certainly a multi-racial enclave, and the issue of race simply does not have relevance here.
I found Nicole Ari Parker’s “Blanche” intriguing, alluring, arresting from her first entrance. I could feel the heat, the exhaustion of the long day’s journey she has just completed on the streetcar named Desire and the other called Cemetery which in turn deposited her on her sister Stella’s doorstep on a street called “Elysian Fields.” Her dress is white, her heels are high, but this beautiful woman is tarnished and tired. Her sister Stella is frisky and alert, aglow at the prospect of an evening in which her husband will play poker with his pals, and she will wait for him to come to bed at the end of it.
Stanley’s return from work introduces us to him vividly as well. He tosses a package of raw meat at his wife, who happily catches it. It lets us in on the nature of their relationship without a word being spoken. When the words do come, they are of the vernacular combined with the poetry that came naturally from Williams’ pen.
When covering plays, I like to leave story lines alone, so their impact is not dulled for the reader if he chooses to become part of an audience. I can tell you this is the clash between reality and fantasy, and the choices people make in order to live comfortably within the boundaries of their own inner lives.
Stella is the one who is torn between two aspects of her nature — and her choice is a tough one. Mitch, Stanley’s friend who will become involved with Blanche, has a tough one too, but he knows who he is, and it causes him more pain than he’s ever known, but he makes the right choice. Stanley and Blanche must have a confrontation, for the Elysian Fields, home of all dead souls, is the last stop for Blanche; if she can’t defeat Stanley, she must die or withdraw into her own private world. And that’s enough of the story of A Streetcar Name Desire.
I found this production, under Emily Mann’s sure hand, totally satisfying. The original, under Elia Kazan’s direction, was equally so, but this one is original and valid. If anything, I found this quartet of actors more grounded than the original, this production less stylized, more real. Even the gifted Ms. deLavallade, as an old neighbor and an old lady selling “flores para los muertos’ (flowers for the dead) contributes vivid examples of life in the colorful, lively, often scary French Quarter as created by the master Tennessee Williams. The four stars approach this work as a new play. There are no ghosts of Tandy, Hunter, Brando,Malden, or Vivien Leigh who was so brilliant in the film.
As with all masterpieces, a new generation of actors often lays claim, and this foursome sets the mark for the 21st Century, the one to beat.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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