Dear Stephen C. Byrd,
We have to be careful what we say about your new, commercial, for-profit revival of A Streetcar Named Desire (now in a for-profit, commercial run at the Broadhurst Theatre) as well as how we say it because, unfortunately, we still have big issues on Broadway when it comes to race.
By that I mean that the most recent demographic statistics from the Broadway League indicate that the Great White Way remains as white as ever. True, the 83% white figure from the 2010-11 season is a whole lot better than the 90+% figure from just a year or two ago, but every time I think about it, the mind just boggles: In New York City, of all places, eight out of 10 ticket-holders sitting in a Broadway theatre is white. What a colossal failure of the Broadway community to broaden and deepen its audience.
And, I always wonder, where is the outrage? People talk, all the time, all about engagement, engagement, engagement, or they ask with deeply furrowed brows, “Where are the new audiences going to come from?,” yet the fare on Broadway, and the audiences that go to see that fare, are the same old, same old. And then you, Mr. Byrd, come along and with your 2008 all-black revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof begin to accomplish what decades of Broadway lip-service has not: to bring audiences of color, in a sustained fashion, to Broadway.
I generally support color-blind casting and I generally support, in the name of artistic experimentation, any theatre work that can organically put race front and center in the conversation — or, for that matter, that demonstrate that our society’s obsession with race is irrelevant. Other than Othello, for obvious reasons, I don’t know that there are overreaching dramaturgical explorations to be made in all-black revivals of any number of Shakespeare plays, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take place: there is a critical point to be made, for example, that the unemployment rate for minority actors is more abysmal than already-abysmal rate for white actors. The real statement when it comes to color-conscious casting is about visibility — the idea that equality is not just what we enshrine into law, not just what we remain vigilant about, not just what we fight for in the courtroom and the classroom, but about what transpires in our minds. True equality in the theatre, it seems to me, is when the first names that pop into a casting director’s mind for a particular role or set of roles can just as easily be those of white actors as of actors of color. True equality in the theatre is when we needn’t worry about the racial composition of the audience. Indeed, if the theatre was really working in this direction, there would be a lot less attention being paid to the fact that you, right now, Mr. Byrd, are the only major black commercial producer working on Broadway. Or that your revival of Streetcar is, so far as we know, not a one-off or a stunt but only the latest in what you want to be a string of all-black revivals of major American plays. I support the concept. I see the need. And, as I said before, I want to tread smartly, carefully and respectfully.
The thing is, equality also implies and necessitates one standard in terms of artistic excellence: it would be an unfathomable insult for a critic to write, “Well, for an all-black [Name of Production], it was very good.” Assuming we agree that good work is good work is good work, your Streetcar was a puzzlement and, therefore, a disappointment. Is it because the impossibly good-looking, almost obscenely buff Blair Underwood is so pretty that we don’t quite believe him as Stanley? It’s possible, although when Stanley finally has his explosions, late in the play, Underwood has no quibble really turning on the violent volcano that clearly burbles beneath Stanley from his first entrance onward. Is it because Nicole Ari Parker’s Blanche is too emotionally untethered — even for poor Blanche — with the result that Parker strongly telegraphs her character’s mental state instead of allowing it to be revealed slowly, within the fullness of the play’s dramatic arc? Is it because Daphne Rubin-Vega’s Stella is, weirdly, too fragile and easily victimized for the audience (of whatever stripe) to sympathize with her? I particularly characterize this last question as weird because Stella’s victimization is, in some senses, really rather the whole point of Tennessee Williams’ play — that is, how the hot, raw, sweaty allure of lust and sex can trump a woman’s self-preservation, self-esteem and rational thought.
Or maybe — and here we wade into the toughest territory of all — there are differences between the expectations and experiences of mostly white vs. mostly black audiences? We’re not talking about the very open commentary coming from the audience when Underwood’s shirt came off; that was, indeed, something to see. Parker’s character made the audience laugh, cackle and giggle in places where Williams, it seems, didn’t intend it to. And while I realize it’s the job of the critic to review the production, not the audience, their very vocal reactions were such that they became a critical part of the show — and you got the sense that the actors were playing to it. Director Emily Mann’s production does get things right in terms of atmosphere, pacing and that whiff of danger that is the play’s thrumming motor. But, and for whatever reason, the audience perceived a dramatic experience that is new for anyone already steeped in Streetcar. So much so, in fact, that the production raises questions about the play’s very viability as a work of dramatic literature in the early 21st century. Only Wood Harris, as the pathetic Mitch (he uses his lanky frame to break your heart from the get-go), seemed to channel the spirit of the play to which we thought we were accustomed.
And finally, it was really lovely to see the immortal Carmen de Lavallade on stage as the Neighbor, but why open the second act with a modified, stylized dance number? What did it signify? Yes, yes, I know: to showcase Ms. de Lavallade. But it took us out of the play, much as Underwood’s looks and Parker’s ethereal qualities and Rubin-Vega’s odd, mini-me masochism took us out of the play. This Streetcar was not a dead end, but a kind of detour through a dense, steamy environment. But it wasn’t Louisiana. And I kept wishing I had a map.