Black audience opinion will likely be split on Broadway’s latest revival of America’s most famous dramatic play, Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Half will be ecstatic about Streetcar’s all-Black casting—the production stars Blair Underwood, Nicole Ari Parker, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Wood Harris—and the opportunities it affords actors of color to strut our stuff on the Great White Way. But the more critical half of African-American theatergoers will leave the Broadhurst Theatre feeling a little nonplussed. Because while a Black Streetcar might automatically be cause for celebration, the truth is, artistically, the drama largely lacks magic.
We’ve all read the play in high school, or CliffsNotes at least. Pretentious, prissy Southern belle Blanche DuBois (Parker) leaves Mississippi for the French Quarter of New Orleans to stay a while with her little sister, Stella (Rubin-Vega). Stella, newly pregnant, lives in urban squalor with blue-collar everyman Stanley Kowalski (Underwood), a macho husband who embodies the exact opposite of Blanche’s Old South affectations. First staged in 1947, Streetcar presented Stanley (a physically abusive rapist) sympathetically to a Mad Men-era crowd who, ironically, held less politically correct attitudes about his flaws. Stanley never gets any comeuppance, and Marlon Brando’s legendary 1950s performance in the role bordered on the antiheroic.
Two telling reactions went down during my preview of Streetcar. The first was ecstatic gasps from women, ringing out when Stanley stripped away his sweaty T-shirt. Sadly, the other was an audible snore from rows behind me at the end of the play’s first act. Somewhere between the poker game, where a drunken Stanley strikes his pregnant wife, and Stanley’s friend Mitch (Wood Harris) courting Blanche on the stoop, somebody in the orchestra seats had fallen fast asleep.
Any somnambulance is no fault of Nicole Ari Parker, who carries most of A Streetcar Named Desire like someone itching for years to get her crack at the role (one never before offered to an African-American actress). Parker pours out well-known lines like “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” and “I don’t want realism, I want magic!” with poise and passion. Daphne Rubin-Vega—the original Mimi Marquez of Broadway’s Rent—is 42 to Parker’s 41, so already oddly cast as Blanche’s younger sister, Stella. Age notwithstanding, Rubin-Vega did a fine enough job as a sexy Stella, but lacked any especially discernible chemistry with Blair Underwood.
Making Stanley somewhat sympathetic isn’t easy, and Underwood basically sidesteps the attempt, coasting on charisma and hunk presence. He’s wholly believable and enjoyable, but he’s no Brando, an impossibly high standard anyway. Wood Harris (of HBO’s The Wire) is Streetcar’s weakest link as Harold “Mitch” Mitchell, Stanley’s relatively cosmopolitan poker partner, who’s charmed by Blanche until finding out about her notorious prostitution at the Flamingo Hotel back in Mississippi. Harris doesn’t do badly, but that’s not saying much. Another actor might’ve stamped the role with more personal, idiosyncratic touches; Harris does not.
President Obama “slow-jamming” the news on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon had many Black folks bestowing cool points, while others complained that the POTUS uses his Blackness too selectively (i.e., never for something like freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal, abolishing Assata Shakur’s bounty, etc.). A Streetcar Named Desire will polarize in a similar way. The cast does great if you’re satisfied with Blacks finally getting a chance to take the reins of a Tennessee Williams classic on Broadway. Should you actually be looking for the cast to do something memorably stellar with that chance, you’ll be a bit disappointed.
-Miles Marshall Lewis