New 'black' version of 'Streetcar' leaves much to be desired

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Emily Mann’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire, starring Golden Globe nominee Blair Underwood as Stanley, and Nicole Ari Parker of Showtime’s Soul Food as the indefatigable Blanche DuBois opened Sunday at the Broadhurst Theater. For many theatergoers (especially those for whom the under-representation of black actors on Broadway is noticeable, problematic and disheartening), experiencing Williams’ fraught, lyrical masterpiece with a multicultural cast felt fresh, exciting, and important. Putting the recurring debate on what it means to have an “all black cast” aside for the moment, sadly, this production does not rise to the occasion, and left this theatergoer baffled from the moment the streetcar pulled out of the station.

The show opens with Parker approaching in low light, inquiring after the streetcar named Desire. She is searching for her sister, Stella (played by Daphne Rubin-Vega – one of the play’s few assets) who has married an incorrigible brute, Stanley. Stella’s paltry digs in the French Quarter, her new man (a blue collar with a violent temper who displays overt sexual appeal — the latter asking little of the seemingly ageless Underwood), and their unseemly lifestyle together represent to Blanche — a tragic victim of her own delusions of grandeur and virtue — all that is coarse, unrefined, and destructive in human nature.

Over the course of the play, Blanche quarrels with Stanley (who accuses her of selling her and her sister’s beloved childhood home, Belle Reve), gets involved with one of Stanley’s poker buddies, the naïve and dimwitted Mitch (played with witless wonder by Wood Harris), is confronted with her own sordid past, and is ultimately driven to madness.

While Mann is largely faithful to Williams’ gripping original script, which deftly explores themes of death, desire, and the power of self-deception, a combination of superficial performances, awkward staging, and a generally off-pitch tone rendered this interpretation of streetcar laughable, literally. It appeared, at times, the production was playing Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning drama for laughs.

Parker’s bawdy Blanche, despite her efforts, is reduced, in this production, to a parody of an aging diva that won’t be seen in direct light, her deeper pathology, inner turmoil, and progressive insanity relegated to words on a page. Harris’ Mitch further cheapens Parker’s performance by, scene after scene, self consciously loping about the stage delivering pitchless and perfunctory lines in comic fashion. Underwood’s Stanley is adequate, but is ultimately limited by the ensemble, leaving Rubin-Vega’s Stella one of the few performances that conveyed any depth.

Thankfully, the lighting and music that accompany this piece make a good show of supplementing the lurid, steamy, hot-jazz atmosphere that the performers fail to conjure. Indeed, Terrance Blanchard’s lush jazz accompaniment during the scene when Stella, transfixed, descends her neighbor’s staircase to meet Stanley, who is seeking her forgiveness after another beating, is a revelation, giving emotional life – and sound! – to the irresistible and soulful passion that stirs between them. Similarly, Edward Pierce’s atmospheric lighting is eerie and instructive to each and every scene.

Ultimately, Mann’s production, however, is a missed opportunity. There are stylistic choices made (for instance, to drop the Polish last name from Stanley’s character, which appears to be one of the only nods — and a wholly erroneous one at that — to the play’s predominantly black cast) that seem disjointed and out of touch with the story being told.

The potential for a production with a black cast of this caliber and a play this multi-dimensional seems endless, but Mann does little to promote a new perspective on Williams’ masterpiece, which seems one of the main opportunities presented by any reproduction.

Why not, for instance, during Blanche’s monologue — at a time when we still had pleasantries like the “brown-paper-bag” test — find a way to reference the damaged intra-race relations that plagued the black community? In that scene, the irony when Parker’s light skinned Blanche refers to Stanley as an “ape” can’t be ignored!

Similarly, in a time when black people’s property — especially down South — could be pillaged without cause by the first group of white people who resented your having property at all, why not somehow tie Belle Reve’s dissolution to the human rights abuses that occurred everyday in 1940s America.

The point is, having a black cast is great for a host of reasons, not least of all for making the “great white way” slightly more diverse, but it isn’t enough to make Tennessee Williams or Bizet more interesting. It’s how the casting or other artistic choices change the lens through which we view and experience the play that make it successful — oh, and, of course, compelling performances.