It isn't easy to put a fresh spin on A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the most acclaimed plays in American theatre, with its caricatured Brando scream of "Stella!" A new production on Broadway aims to shake things up, putting black and Latino actors in the lead roles.
The idea of "colorblind" casting is a couple of generations old now, but it faces particular challenges in a play where the central conflict is between an uppercrust French plantation daughter and a Polish-American roughneck. But director Emily Mann refutes the idea that the casting is a gimmick. She points to a key line in Tennessee Williams' play as a clue: "'My American ancestors were French Huguenot,' that's the line. And so if you say it as, 'My American ancestors were French Huguenot,' the others were African." The white ethnicities, she thinks, aren't key to the drama. "How we made historical sense of the different culture between Stanley and the Dubois sisters," Mann explains, "is that he's a dark-skinned man with a very fair-skinned wife, who comes from the plantation houses of yore."
The actress Carol Sutton appeared in an all-Black production of Streetcar in New Orleans years ago. She thinks Williams' work easily adapts to the Black community because all his characters can be found there. "People who were rich and then lost their fortune. People who go crazy. People who are ne'er do well, and just mean people like Stanley." Even Blanche and Stella, could be the descendants of slave-owning families. "In Louisiana, black people had slaves! A lot of Tennessee's plays translate very well to other cultures."
Philosopher Cornel West goes even farther, asserting that Williams' plays are imbued with African-American culture. "The blues is a compassionate response to catastrophe – it can be in song, or it can be in a Tennessee Williams play. Catastrophe is a constant companion of the major protagonists of every play by Tennessee Williams. It's no accident that Tennessee Williams and others incorporate a blues idiom in their understanding of America," West explains. "The blues is the creation of a Black peoples on the underside of a romantic project called the USA." And Williams himself, West says, "is my soul brother. He's a white literary bluesman of the highest order."
Video: a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire