As an undergraduate theatre major in the 1970s with an interest in acting, I did not get to play Stanley Kowalski. It was a personal dream that I never told anyone but the playwright Tennessee Williams. I knew Tennessee for all of the few moments it took to get an autograph. He, too, was an actor that day in 1972, having just performed Off-Broadway in his play Small Craft Warnings. He seemed tired, absolutely bored with my request, and genuinely pleased with my expressed dream.
As a high school senior in 1969, I thought A Streetcar Named Desire was the greatest play I had ever read. All of the plays we were assigned to read in my English class were by White playwrights, but Streetcar just seemed like a play about Black people to me. At the end of the year, we would travel downstate to New York City to see a production of one of our plays.
Williams’ script detailed a low-income neighborhood, very different from my own middle-class rural community in upstate New York. It was a fascinating ghetto made colorful, as much by its people as its aged architecture. In New Orleans, pianos played “with the infatuated fluency of brown fingers” on most every corner. “New Orleans is a cosmopolitan city,” wrote Williams, “where there is a warm and easy intermingling of races in the old part of town.”
To me, Blanche DuBois looked like any one of my very fair-skinned aunts, cousins or sisters. Like many women in my family, who were as White as Dinah Shore, Blanche was not passing. She was simply Colored and never brought it to anyone’s mind, especially her own. Stanley and his friend Mitch were World War II veterans just like my father. My father and Stanley were very different men, but they were both hard-working Colored men.
In 1973, I was in a college production of Streetcar. My director delighted in my Tennessee Williams encounter and promised me that if he had more black students he would have done an all-black version and I would have been Stanley. He may have said that because I was dating our Blanche and by rehearsing with her, I knew about all of Stanley’s lines. He apologized to me that he didn’t have a larger role than a funeral parade extra. Still, I was his unadvertised Stanley standby, in case our starring actor got sick.
The Broadway revival of Streetcar, starring Nicole Ari Parker and Blair Underwood, is the way I remember the play, in which I had performed, but never actually seen. “Tennessee always wanted this to happen,” the play’s director Emily Mann told the Los Angeles Times, when asked about its casting. From what I have studied and discern about Tennessee Williams, he would have embraced this production and its actors.
Blanche DuBois remains a southern belle, proudly Huguenot, with undefined additives, who relentlessly goads her younger sister Stella for marrying an ape-like man. So anxious to marry Allan Grey—whom she exclaims as “The Grey boy” (what some colorstruck folks used to call a 'White boy') with pretty blue eyes that she missed another important feature about her husband. He was homosexual. In this production we witness that Stanley the Brut wasn't near as brutal as his refined sister-in-law.
The production has made a small change in restaurants. Galatoire’s is replaced by Dookie Chase, which the audience more easily identifies.
The cast is entirely commendable. Blair Underwood delivers a strong and satisfying Stanley. Exceptional performances also by Daphne Rubin-Vega as Stella and Wood Harris as Mitch. Carmen de Lavallade is a marvel and a symbol of living theatre history as assorted characters. Nicole Ari Parker is a Blanche DuBois for the ages. She is in the league of the legendary Jessica Tandy and Vivian Leigh, and perhaps the crème de la crème.
Streetcar is an allegorical play about America. History is made lyrical, dream-like and tragically poetic by Tennessee Williams, whose original Broadway production drew overwhelming rave public reviews but a few ominous private opinions. At its 1948 opening night, Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times was thrilled at Blanche DuBois as a magnificent character who has created “an artificial world to mask the hideousness of the world she has to inhabit.”
Making Stanley Polish was perhaps the lightest allegorical touch of all by Williams. Hearing the P-word (polack) got the bigotry points across very well to understand a bit more of Blanche’s coarseness. The N-word would have blown all covers and Streetcar would have closed by intermission, if ever opened at all.
"Mendacity is a system that we live in," wrote Williams in a later play. The relevance and truthfulness of Streetcar has finally arrived on Broadway.
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Senior Researcher, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture