“A Streetcar Named Desire” — on Broadway

The recent revival of Streetcar is the first Broadway production to include a cast of African-Americans playing the key lead roles: Blanche, Stanley, Stella and Mitch. Blair Underwood, who plays Stanley, has recently taken to television shows to take issue with certain negative critics, especially John Lahr of the New Yorker who proved that racism is still alive and well when he wrote last December in his wishlist for 2012: “no more infernal all-black productions of Tennessee Williams plays unless we can have their equal in folly: all-white productions of August Wilson.” Lahr’s unfortunate choice of words…..infernal…..folly…… evokes not only a puritanical moralizing language that labels these actors as black devils scourging our theater with their hellishly fiendish designs, but also his snide demand for “their equal in folly” of all-white productions of August Wilson–Back in the 19th century these sort of “follies” of white actors performing black roles were known as minstrel shows. The tortured history of the American theater and its relation with race demands a critic who is sensitive to the structural forces of institutions that have prevented diverse and rich depictions of oppressed populations, not a writer who casually employs the word “we” in such a way that black people. Although Lahr jests, the difficulty, but not the impossibility, of casting white actors in traditionally black plays would have to be the barrier of racism that has tragically divided the lower classes of the United States for centuries. Characters of the oppressed, black, community are consigned to a different sphere, a “double consciousness” develops that is reflected in particular dramatic representations and is precisely something that a character who identifies with the “white” ruling class would have difficulty representing. This racism, the “psychological wage” of whiteness that allows the poorest white to see herself as somehow “better” than the richest black would render most attempts to populate African-American worlds with white actors into farce, folly and burnt cork–But why create a rule? One can imagine productions that maybe illuminate the disadvantages of the white underclass in a novel way that could work to weaken the sinister construct of “whiteness” that has divided the economically disadvantaged for years. As the May ’68 graffito put it, “We are all German Jews“…

Moving on from Lahr’s statement (which really wasn’t a review or part of a review), this recent production has received many positive reviews, but also many negative reviews that concentrate their criticism on the actors and director. Having seen the production, I can say that the acting compares favorably with the 2005 Roundabout production I saw starring Natasha Richardson and John C. Reilly–But the experience of watching this cast in a Broadway theater with an audience that must have been at least 60% African-American created an engagement with this play that went beyond a simple judgement of performance. The interplay between the darker skinned Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker, who plays Blanche as a lighter-skinned Creole creates a situation in which the text is interrogated in a way that draws attention to nuances both in the story and American history that are not as evident in an “all-white” production. To wit, Stella’s attempt to define herself against Stanley employs explicitly racial language: “There’s even something — sub-human — something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Yes, something — ape-like about him.” “We are french—by extraction. Our first American ancestors were French Huguenots.” Extraction taking on a rawer meaning here in Nicole Ari Parker’s slow, winking delivery. And Stanley’s language to Blanche also twists lines into new meanings: “You come in here and sprinkle the place with powder and spray perfume and cover the light bulb with a paper lantern and lo and behold the place has turned into Egypt and you have become the queen of the Nile!” While any actors who take on these lead roles will have to contend with the intimidating combined pantheon of Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Vivien Leigh, Anthony Quinn, Uta Hagen, Rosemary Harris, Tallulah Bankhead, Aidan Quinn, Blythe Danner, Jessica Lange, and Cate Blanchette, to name a few, I don’t believe it to be philistine to emphasize that some of the critics’ obsessive focus on the acting allows them to avoid the rich theoretical and artistic territory that is opened up by this “non-traditional” casting.

A few reviews and articles also uncomfortably mention the audience in coded language that draws attention to “inappropriate laughter” , and “howls”, cries of “Oh baby!”,  which says more about certain theater-goers expectations of how an audience should behave than anything particularly disturbing. After all, New York City is a city of inappropriate audiences and theatrical riots. And the fact that these noises show at least an engagement , for better or worse, with the performance is to be preferred to the usual disruption of snoring or impatient sighing–What is clear is that the casting of African-Americans in key roles is drawing a new audience to Broadway, a fact that the producers, who trumpet this “strong, sexy and steamy” production in their advertizements have not ignored, but which has aggravated a few “traditional” theater-goers.

There will always be the question of the “legitimacy” of casting African-Americans in this play. The arguments hinge around two different poles: whether Tennessee Williams himself approved of casting African-Americans in his play, and whether the text (which has Blanche losing her family’s plantation and pining after an oil baron, not to mention Stanley’s surname is Kowalski) can support such casting.

The answer to both questions is YES, but a more thorough investigation of these issues can be found in Philip C. Kolin’s 1991 article in the Black American Literature Forum titled Williams in Ebony: Black and Multi-Racial Productions of A Streetcar Named Desire which describes the history of numerous stagings that laid the foundation for this current Broadway revival. Even if an author is known to have disapproved of a certain interpretation of his or her work, this certainly has little bearing on whether such an interpretation has artistic merit or furthers our understanding of the text. Nevertheless, Tennessee Williams’ agent Audrey Wood is quoted as saying that Williams thought a Streetcar with an all-black cast would be “an advance in relations and I look forward eagerly to it.” The author allowed dialogue to be changed to better reflect the casting, but these preparations were intended for a 1959 off-Broadway revival that never materialized. Kolin writes of “Williams’ possible apprehension” to this New York production, but the fact is that an all-black cast performed Streetcar earlier in 1955 at Los Angeles’ Ebony Showcase Theater. The owner of the theater, the film actor Nick Stewart, also had Audrey Wood as his agent and this connection paved the way for the first all-black professional production. Stewart is quoted by Kolin who interviewed him in 1990:

Audrey Wood saw what I was doing at the Ebony to uplift the image in our community, to do humanitarian things, and she helped me in this respect. You see, I have been in several Broadway shows, and I saw how blacks were, in most cases, presented in the negative, and I thought that we would just do people plays, showing us as people, too. At that time there were no positive roles for black actors. Blacks were cast as buffoons and clowns, distorting images which were damaging to the black community. Theatre can be used to change such attitudes.

But even earlier than this first professional production was the very first all-black production at the historically black Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri in 1953, an anomalous production of a play that was then deemed to be too risqué even for most white audiences with its “earthy” subject matter that mentioned homosexuality and characters that “disparaged Southern womanhood”. The all-black ensemble at the university most likely lent the production both autonomy and a certain anonymity.

In his article, Kolin goes on to describe in detail seven more productions:

1956 – A second production at Nick Stewart’s Ebony Showcase Theater in Los Angeles that received rave reviews.

1965 – An integrated, muti-racial production at Howard University with a white Blanche and a Brazilian-born actor playing Stanley.

1974 – a black Stanley was cast in the Free People’s Theatre’s (Freie Volksbuhne) production in West Berlin. This Streetcar, which played fast and loose with the text (Blanche “enjoys” being raped), was censored and only ran for nine performances.

1982 – The Dance Theater of Harlem staged an all-black ballet adaptation of the play.

1983 – The first black playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize, Charles Gordone, directed the play at the American Stage Company in Berkely, California with Stanley being the only black lead character. Gordone critiqued the idea of an all-black Streetcar, thinking such a move would damage the play’s “socio-economic framework”, an incisive point that draws attention to Blanche’s loss of her fortune and the familial plantation Belle Reve. Gordone was also the source of an apocryphal story that Tennessee Williams believed a black Stanley was his original idea, a story Gordone denied:

 I never heard Tennessee Williams say that he had originally intended Stanley to be a black character. Nor have I ever heard Elia Kazan mention it. But I did hear it mumbled and rumored about in black theatre circles. Actually, the first time I heard it voiced was by the late Frank Silvera, the well-known black stage (Hat Full of Rain) and film (Viva Zapata) actor in the forties and fifties. Since both of them are deceased, we may never really know for sure. With the great success of Marlon Brando in the part, one could hardly mourn the loss of a black actor in the role!

1984 – The Dashiki Project Theatre at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans saw mounted an all-black production that Kolin describes as one of the “most significant” revivals. This New Orleans production altered the script so that specific place names such as restaurants, the YMCA and a bowling alley were altered so as to refer to specifically African-American locations in the city. Kolin comments that the southern audience and critics did not find Blanche’s ownership of a plantation in Mississippi plausible, echoing Charles Gordone’s point.

1987 – The Black Ensemble at the Leo Lerner Theater in Chicago mounted a version that ran for a month and that critics noticed found more humor in the piece than with white productions. Kolin describes this version as “more radical”.

1988 – Howard University staged another Streetcar, but this time broke new ground by exploring “colorism” or inter-racial racism in having Blanche be French Creole and Stanley a South Carolinian Gullah.

This history (there are probably several examples from the 1990s and early 2000s as well) shows that there is a rich heritage of African-American interaction with this play. The “non-traditional” casting choices open up a new vantage point on the universality of the text and the diversity of our history. With engagements such as these, not only can we discover the unseen contours and shadings of this artistic creation when it is lit from a different angle, but also we can begin to unveil the neglected regions of African-American history. Blair Underwood mentions in his Facebook post that

Once you know your history and know that there was indeed a culture of people (in the 1700s), endemic to Louisiana called the “gens de colour libre,” or “free people of color,” and that these people owned plantations & some actually owned their own slaves, there is no basis to dismiss the backstory of our Dubois sisters who hail from their family owned plantation called Belle Reve; Or to dismiss the part of the story where Blanche Dubois pines for an oil millionaire called Shep Huntleigh. If these dismissive Nay Sayers knew their history, they would know that there were a number of black people that owned oil wells in the 30s & 40s:

These are three actual black millionaires in the deep south of the 1930s & 40s that serve as prototypes for Shep Huntleigh:

Lee Wilder Thomas

William Madison McDonald

Joseph Jacob Simmons

The headline from this conversation is really: BLACK FOLKS, STAY IN YOUR PLACE!

As John Guare shows us in his radiant and expansive play A Free Man of Color , the path of these “gens de couleur libre” through American history, racism, the Civil War, Reconstruction, KKK terrorism and pogroms, to the 1940s is a bloody and tortuous one, but only one’s lack of historical awareness and imagination would deny this Blanche DuBois the possibility of losing her Belle Reve, which was after all a “beautiful dream”…

To Blair Underwood’s sarcastic “Black Folks, Stay in your Place”– We can only respond in true theatrical tradition as the stage manager calls to her actors: “BLACK FOLKS, PLACES!” — Take your place on the stage — The continuing engagement with these texts can only invigorate the theater and wider community the theater claims to and is entrusted to represent.

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