Multiracial Take on 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

The revival starring Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker is a milestone for Broadway.

Courtesy of A Streetcar Named Desire

The moment the curtain rises, the earthy, sensual tones of Terence Blanchard's jazzy score fill the Broadhurst Theatre. In a place called Elysian Fields, a black man brings a package of meat home to his wife. Two neighbors, one white and one Latina, sit on a stoop, share stories and laugh. A finely dressed stranger with light skin enters the scene. This is New Orleans, just as Tennessee Williams might have imagined it.

This revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, which opened April 22, marks the first time the 1947 play has appeared on Broadway with a multiracial cast. The production features Blair Underwood (Stanley), Nicole Ari Parker (Blanche), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Stella) and Wood Harris (Mitch). While this production is certainly a milestone, it's actually not the first of its kind. 

History in the Making

Director Emily Mann, who knew the famous playwright personally, told The Root that Williams had always wanted to see a major production of Streetcar with a cast of color. Over the years, the playwright continually granted permission for several multiracial and all-black cast theater companies to produce his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The first African-American production took place in 1953 by the Summer Theatre Co. at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo. In an ongoing effort to highlight the level of black talent in theater, Nick and Edna Stewart produced the first professional production of Streetcar at the Ebony Showcase Theatre in Los Angeles in 1955.    

Scholar Philip C. Kolin wrote in Williams: Streetcar Named Desire (Plays in Production), "A strong black presence has always inhabited Streetcar." Williams was a born Southerner, having spent his life surrounded by black culture. In an essay for, Mann wrote, "He understood human beings, period, and he understood New Orleans society. And you can't understand New Orleans and the South without understanding black people." Despite the play's cultural history, a major multiracial production of Streetcar would elude Broadway for years.

In the opening stage directions of the play, Williams described how black entertainers could be heard in a barroom around the corner and how one could hear a piano being played by the "infatuated fluency of brown fingers." Mann said, "The question has never been why should there be a production [of color], but rather, why not?"   

For several years, Mann had wanted to direct Streetcar with a cast of color but was waiting for the right opportunity. That opportunity came in the form of producers Stephen Byrd and Alia M. Jones. In 2008 Byrd and Jones produced Broadway's first African-American production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which starred James Earl Jones, Terence Howard, Phylicia Rashad and Anika Noni Rose. The play went on to become the highest-grossing Broadway play that year.

Soon after, Byrd and Jones began preparations to produce a new version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Upon hearing that her favorite play was going to be revived on Broadway, Mann threw her name in the ring for the director's seat. Once Underwood, Parker, Rubin-Vega and Harris were all on board, Mann knew she had a winning cast. 

New Layers Emerge

Streetcar became iconic specifically because of Elia Kazan's 1951 classic film, which starred Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. Mann admitted, "The film version is in the DNA of this country." While Kazan's masterpiece was a heavy burden to bear, Mann knew that their production could set itself apart.