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 Broadway.com, 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.
When Mann first approached the producers, she laid out what would become one of the major aspects of the new production — Stella and Blanche DuBois would be descended from a lighter-skinned, upper-class family, while Stanley, Stella's husband, would be a darker-skinned, lower-class black man. Mann's vision coincided with exactly how Byrd and Jones wanted to stage the production.
As to how the audience would react to this interpretation of the script, Mann believed that "a cast of color helped to dispel the ghosts [of past productions]." For example, class and ethnic references took on new racial dimensions. When Blanche referred to Stanley as an "ape," "sub-human" and "bestial" or Stanley derided Blanche's "lily-white fingers," the dialogue revealed a new layer of the interracial boundaries between the DuBois sisters and Stanley.
Mann hoped by staying true to New Orleans, the production would capture the city's natural "melding of so many ethnicities." Famous jazz composer and musician Terence Blanchard, a native to New Orleans, was brought in to create the right musical backdrop. At the top of the second act, Mann staged a jazz funeral, where the multiracial cast dance in a fluid and improvisational style on the stage, an image that brings alive the stage directions that Williams wrote in the text of the play: "New Orleans is a cosmopolitan city where there is a relatively warm and easy intermingling of the races in the old part of town."
While having minorities onstage is a huge feat, there's an even bigger accomplishment that this revival of Streetcar might achieve. In a 2010-2011 survey, the Broadway League reported that 83 percent of all tickets were purchased by white theatergoers. The most impressive part of the success of the 2008 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was the fact that the all-black cast brought in a larger African-American audience, a feat that has eluded most Broadway productions.
At the end of this play, when the curtain closed and the house lights went up, an audience full of people from different ethnicities and races intermingled as they made their way out of the theater. They talked, laughed and shared stories from the play. The setting was like New Orleans but inside a Broadway theater in New York City, much the way Tennessee Williams might have imagined it.
Celena Cipriaso has written for CNN.com, Bitch, Draft, Film Buff and Arts America.