A Streetcar Named Desire Review: On Broadway With A Black Blanche, Blair Underwood
Tennessee William long wanted to see “A Streetcar Named Desire” cast with African-American actors, according to the director who now has brought a multi-racial production to Broadway: “He’d always known, as someone who knows New Orleans, how right this is,” director Emily Mann, who was personally acquainted with the playwright, said recently.
Before seeing Mann’s production, this might not sound right at all. Blanche DuBois was born into a family that owned a plantation in Mississippi called Belle Reve. A faded flower of Southern gentility, Blanche is aghast when, having lost Belle Reve to the bankers, she moves into her sister Stella’s dingy New Orleans apartment and meets Stella’s husband Stanley Kowalski. Blanche sees Stanley as lacking in culture and manners, and is prejudiced against him because of his Polish working class background; she calls him a Polack. How can this story make any sense if Blanche, Stella and Stanley are not white? Even the name “Blanche” is another word for “white.”
On the stage of the Broadhurst Theater, however, the casting concept does largely work – better than one of the specific casting choices.
When Debbie Allen directed her Broadway production of Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof four years ago with an all-black cast, she placed the Mississippi plantation of the play close to the present, and thus far from the Jim Crow era. Mann, by contrast, sets “A Streetcar Named Desire” in the New Orleans of 1952, just a few years after what was the present day when Williams wrote the play in 1947. But New Orleans at the time, as Williams writes in a stage direction, was “a cosmopolitan city where there is a relatively warm and easy intermingling of the races in the old part of town.”
To emphasize the importance she places on the sense of place in the play, Mann has created brief pantomimed interludes between Williams’ scenes that offer a glimpse of New Orleans life, which are accompanied by new original jazz music composed by Terence Blanchard: The ensemble marches in a funeral procession carrying umbrellas in the rain, or struts and fights outside a New Orleans saloon.
To accommodate the casting, there are some adjustments to the script: Stanley doesn’t have a last name anymore; Blanche doesn’t call him a Polack. But there are moments in the remaining text that, in their new context, have the feel of revelation. Half-way through the play, when Blanche is trying to get her sister Stella to leave her husband, she says: “He acts like an animal,” she says – an ape. “His poker night you call it, this party of apes.”
There right in the text is a traditional ethnic slur against African-Americans. Both Nicole Ari Parker and Daphne Rubin-Vega, the actresses playing Blanche and Stella, are people of color themselves, but they are light-skinned, while Blair Underwood, the actor playing Stanley, is dark-skinned. In this production, then, Blanche’s prejudice becomes that of the light-skinned against the dark-skinned. This is driven home later in the play when Stanley refers resentfully to Blanche’s “lily-white fingers” – again, right in Williams’ script.
There are two main aesthetic reasons I can think of to justify Mann’s reinterpretation of “A Streetcar Named Desire” through multi-racial casting – – to have the audience look at a classic work in a fresh light, thereby adding to our understanding of it; and to give us the chance to see great actors in roles normally closed to them. The director clearly achieves the first aim. She is only partially successful in the second.
Blair Underwood, who is known primarily for his button-down roles on television – an idealistic lawyer in L.A. Law, the president of the United States in The Event – here lets loose as Stanley, the role that made Marlon Brando a star, and that must be intimidating for any actor, including those who succeeded Brando in the part on Broadway, from Anthony Quinn to Alec Baldwin. Underwood gets both the animal and the animal magnetism. There is also a plaintive, needy quality that fits the character; when he yells “Stellllaaaaa,” he breaks down into desperate sobs.
A pleasant surprise is the performance by Wood Harris as Mitch, Blanche’s gentleman caller. Harris made an indelible impression as the vicious drug kingpin Avon Barksdale in the HBO TV series “The Wire.” If too handsome and fit for the role of the awkward mama’s boy (originated on stage and screen by Karl Malden), Harris captures the decency and the diffidence of the character, and adds a measure of charm that isn’t out of place.
Of no surprise to me is Daphne Rubin-Vega’s stellar performance as Stella, an actress I have admired since her appearance as Mimi in the original cast of Rent and then as Conchita in “Anna In the Tropics.” She manages to present a convincing character out of what could just be an exasperating doormat; why does Stella stay with a man who beats her and mistreats her sister?
Less convincing for me is Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche. A former model, and an actress in a series of forgettable movies and in the Showtime TV series “Soul Food,” Parker projects a natural, very appealing personality. She is a statuesque beauty whose imposing poise and flawless skin make her seem like a former Miss America. Her looks actually remind me a little of Whitney Houston’s, which admittedly may be one reason why, in some of the scenes in which Blanche is supposed to be either drunk or psychotic, Parker struck me instead as playing someone on drugs – not debilitated but hopped up. When she flirts, she often seems secure in her sensuality, rather than resorting to an old-fashioned and outdated strategy from a place of powerlessness. Her Blanche is capable and forceful, not fragile; aggressive, not passive-aggressive. When she tells Stella off, she seems someone who could move mountains. When Stanley menaces Blanche near the end and Blanche breaks a bottle to defend herself, it almost looks like a fair fight. Without a sense that Blanche has increasingly pushed aside the real world to retreat into her own exaggerated ladylike world of elegance, delicacy and delusion, her breakdown seems to come from nowhere, and is nowhere near as heartbreaking.
Cate Blanchett is similarly tall, beautiful and imposing, and was the last Blanche I saw on stage before this one, in December, 2009 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But Blanchett was a good enough actress to pull off what is arguably an increasing trend towards miscasting the role of Blanche DuBois.
Allow me a weird riff on this: Nicole Ari Parker is the ninth Blanche on Broadway. Jessica Tandy originated the role in 1947, followed by Uta Hagen (1950), Tallulah Bankhead (1956), Rosemary Harris (1973), all women praised more for their acting than for their beauty – and, coincidentally or not, all but Hagen 5’4 or shorter. The Blanches on Broadway over the past two decades — Blythe Danner, Jessica Lange, Natasha Richardson – have been as notable for their beauty as their acting. And they’re taller than the earlier actresses, at least 5’7. Even the movie Blanche, Vivien Leigh, was 5’3. Blanchett is 5’9.
“You used to be big, “ Joe Gillis says to Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. “I am big,” she replies. “It’s the pictures that got small.” “A Streetcar Named Desire” remains big, but maybe future productions could cast a smaller, or at least more fragile-looking, Blanche.
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A Streetcar Named Desire
Written by Tennessee Williams;
Music Composed by Terence Blanchard
Directed by Emily Mann
Scenic Design by Eugene Lee; Costume Design by Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design by Edward Pierce; Sound Design by Mark Bennett; Hair and Wig Design by Charles G. LaPointe
Cast: Blair Underwood, Nicole Ari Parker, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Wood Harris Amelia Campbell, Matthew Saldivar, Rosa Evangelina Arredondo, Carmen De Lavallade, Aaron Clifton, Moten Jacino, Taras Riddick, Count Stovall
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets: $66.50 to $131.50, Premium tickets, $199. Student rush, $29.50
“A Streetcar Named Desire” is scheduled to run until July 22.
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