THE TENNESSEE WILLIAMS CLASSIC RETURNS TO BROADWAY WITH AN ALMOST ENTIRELY AFRICAN AMERICAN CAST
BY HENRY EDWARDS
In its eighth Main Stem outing since its 1947 debut, Tennessee Williams’ s landmark play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,’’ has been given a different look (at least for Broadway) by director Emily Mann.
Unlike previous productions, this edition, which recently set up shop at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre, features a predominantly African-American cast.
Mann, who knew Williams personally, maintains the playwright had always wanted to see a major production of "Streetcar" with a cast of color.
Nevertheless, although productions with multiracial or all-black casts have been taking place since 1953, a major multiracial effort has continued to elude Broadway—until now.
Stripped to its bare bones, this incredibly famous play really is a family triangle that pits the fading Southern belle and relic of the Old South, Blanche DuBois (Nicole Ari Parker), against her brutish working-class brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski (Brett Underwood). Stanley is married to Blanche’s sister, Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega), and Blanche and he vie for control over the passive younger woman.
Trapped in a shabby present and facing a future that looks even bleaker, Blanche oscillates between hope and paranoia, utilizing pretensions to virtue and culture and claims of aristocratic bearing to mask her alcoholism and a sordid past, including a brief marriage to a young homosexual who committed suicide when Blanche discovered his secret. Haunted by this harrowing event and with her facade crumbling, she descends into nymphomania.
Stanley, on the other hand, is an amiable brute with a vicious temper and a capacity for domestic abuse. Despite—or perhaps because—of his violent nature, he enjoys a highly charged sexual relationship with Stella.
Incapable of understanding her sister's attraction to Stanley, Blanche calls her brother-in-law an ape and criticizes Stella for marrying a violent and animalistic man.
Finally, in a horrifying act that turns out to be his utimate revenge, Stanley, drunk and angry, rapes Blanche. This event, coupled with the fact that Stella refuses to believe the truth, destroys whatever is left of Blanche’s sanity and sends her over the edge.
That the clash of culture and class between Blanche and Stanley has been nothing less than devestating culminates in an agonizing denouement that finds Blanche being committed to a mental institution.
Typically, the plays of Tennesee Williams, the most literary of the handful of great American dramatists, mate a hefty dose of lyricism to the dramatic impulse. In "Streetcar," Williams utilizes his gift for poetic language accompanied by a mix of realism, symbolism and expressionism to enrich the meanings that underpin the text.
Thus at its core Blanche’s fall is a parable that teaches the lesson that the human condition simply does not allow a romantic dreamer to survive.
Yet in this production, neither the poetic nature of Williams's language nor the play's thematic content appear to have preoccupied the director.
What Mann and her cast have accomplished—and accomplished admirably—is to provide the play with a clear, powerful, emotionally charged reading that concentrates almost exclusively on story telling and atmospherics.
Under the director's tutelage, Nicole Ari Parker creates a touchingly spaced out portrait of Blanche. Parker’s performance is enhanced by the star’s great beauty, elegance and poise.
Blair Underwood, a very strong actor and one who bristles with masculinity, offers a Stanley who is suitably brutish, animalistic, overtly sexy and impossible to control.
Unlike typical characterizations of Stella, Daphne Rubin-Vega creates a more contemporary version, envisioning a woman who, although sexually attracted and dominated by Stanley, is not afraid to fight back.
As Stanley's friend and Blanche's would-be suitor, Mitch, the innocent who falls for Blanche’s histrionics and becomes convinced he will be her savior, Wood Harris is heartbreaking in his earnestness and sincerity.
Tennessee Williams loved New Orleans, the most multi-racial of all cities and one that served as a dramatic antidote to puritanical America. In order to create the feel of Williams's New Orleans, Mann turned to jazz composer, musician and New Orleans native Terence Blanchard to create the hypnotic, jazz-inflected score that underlines the action and bridges the scenes.
The director also utilizes stylized movement to suggest the sexy, humid feel of the city, and she launches the second act with a full out, danced jazz funeral sylishly choreographed by Camille A. Brown.
Eugene Lee's detailed design of the Kowalski apartment in the French Quarter and the slum surrounding it serves as the perfect poetic visual evocation of the text. The design is helped considerably by Edward Pierce's awesomely beautiful light plot which bathes the stage in shafts of moody color. There is no better lit play on Broadway.
Discussing the multi-racial casting of the play, Mann pointed out that Stella and Blanche DuBois would be descended from a lighter-skinned, upper-class family, while Stanley, Stella's husband, would be a darker-skinned, lower-class black man.
For some audience members, those casting choices definitely helped define the class and social differences the between the Dubois sisters and Stanley.
Others will discount the question of casting, preferring to delight in the fact that Mann's production offers the opportunity for good actors to take on classic roles they normally would never have a chance to play.
This "Streetcar" is violent, sexy, occasionally funny and all told, very strong entertainment. And for anyone who is encountering it for the first time, it's a terrific introduction to a play that previously has been subjected to deeper scrutiny and undoubtedly will be again in productions of the future.