Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Power and Perspective on Broadway

I still remember my first encounter with Tennessee Williams'  heartbreaking yet beautiful play, A Streetcar Named Desire.  I was young, about ten or eleven.  I was flipping through the channels in my room one day, trying to find something interesting to watch, when suddenly something (or more specifically, someone) caught my eye.  It was Scarlett O'Hara!  Or, in reality, it was Vivien Leigh, playing Blanche DuBois in Kazan's 1951 film version of Streetcar.  

I suppose I was still trying to get used to the idea that the people on TV were actors, not real people (not to insult anyone or say that actors are not real people know what I mean!), and that actors and actresses could play more than one character.  I was not entirely sure what I was watching, but I was intrigued by how different than Scarlett she sounded.  And she looked blonde!  Wasn't that strange?  

Poor Scarlett!  Rhett would never allow you to be abused this way!

I am not sure if I even understood what I was watching that first time around.  Still, something about the film and the story stuck with me.  I found myself going back to Streetcar time and again over the course of my life.  Once I even went so far as to say it was my "favorite play."  Do people usually have favorite plays, or is that just me?  Needless to say, when Jerry offered to take me to see the revival of Streetcar on Broadway for our anniversary, I jumped at the chance.  I was also intrigued by the idea of a Broadway showing of Streetcar that featured a multi-racial cast.  I imagined that the dynamics of the play would only be enhanced by adding the element of racial tension into a story that was already driven by issues of power and class.  

Having seen the show, I do feel that by adding the issue of race into the mix, they were able to add even greater depth to the complicated relationships and power struggles between Blanche, Stella, and Stanley.  In this interpretation of Streetcar, Blanche and Stella have become "Creoles," whose family attempted to "move up" in the world by associating more with the white planter class around New Orleans.  This seemingly minor change, in reality, forces us to entirely re-think the section of the play where Blanche begs Stella not to let Stanley, a poor black man, pull her down out of the "light" of "progress" and into the "brutal" "dark."  It makes Stanley's fury and frustration at being called "common" and an "ape" all the more poignant.  It, lets be honest, makes certain sections of the play extremely uncomfortable to watch.  Still, I believe that discomfort adds to the power of the experience, as it echoes the reality of what life was like in New Orleans during the 1950s.  

It also forces the audience to deal, first hand, with complex social issues that continue to play a role in our lives today.  For instance, while I was extremely excited to see this version of Streetcar, it appears that there has been a backlash among certain members of the so-called (and self-labeled) Broadway "elite," who feel that having a multi-racial cast tackle Williams' material (both Streetcar and the recent revision of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) is "gimmicky"  and detracts from the story in some way.  The implication being that the audience will not be able to see past the actors' skin color long enough to appreciate the material.  Or, even more shockingly, that the actors and actresses cast in this adaptation of Streetcar are less talented than their white counterparts, and therefore, will not do justice to Williams' iconic characters.  I assure you, all of this is hogwash.  In fact, I would almost go so far as to say that Nicole Ari Parker's Blanche was more intriguing, more sympathetic, and more visibly broken than Leigh's.  And Blair Underwood's interpretation of Stanley was simply stunning.  He really forced me to re-think my views on Stanley and his relationship with Stella.  

No one's better than Brando?  Well maybe...but go see it...decide for yourself.

Still, despite my disgust at the reaction of certain individuals to this wonderful show, I cannot help but recognize that there is a common thread tying our interpretations of this version of Streetcar together.  While they were horrified by the idea of a multi-racial cast and I was intrigued by it, no one can deny that we all thought that there was something different and/or strange about the concept.  

No one would be surprised to hear about a new interpretation of Streetcar featuring an all white cast.  No one would think there was anything strange or gimmicky about it.  No one would comment on how the choice of actors to play Stanley and Blanche dramatically changes the way we think of the character's relationships.  No.  On the contrary, everyone would automatically assume that the lead characters would be portrayed by white actors.  We would not even think twice about it.  And therein lies the problem.  While we have, of course, made tremendous strides in race relations in the United States, we continue to live in a society where white privilege is not only pervasive, it is almost invisible.  Those of us who live under the shelter of that privilege have a duty to recognize it and call out inequity when we see it.  Otherwise we are only contributing to the matter how excited we are to see plays with a multi-racial cast.