A Desegregated ‘Streetcar’

Desire comes in all hues, and so do the people of New Orleans, the city with a famously mixed and complicated racial history where Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (Broadhurst Theatre) takes place. So there’s nothing inherently unreasonable about casting a production of Streetcar chiefly with African American and Latino actors. Williams himself was initially uncertain about his characters’ ethnicity: One early draft makes Blanche’s brother-in-law an Irishman named Ralph Stanley, whose bowling shirt is covered with shamrocks. Race is a relative matter.

On the other hand, Streetcar‘s action unfolds at a particular point in New Orleans’s history, just after World War II, when life for African Americans was going through a major transition, full of hope for a social and legal equality that had not yet been achieved. Brown v. Board was nearly a decade away; the son of a nonwhite Stanley and Stella would have had to go to a segregated school. The choice of nice restaurants in the Quarter where Stella could take Blanche would likewise be strictly limited. Since, in this production, Eunice and Steve upstairs (Amelia Campbell and Matt Saldívar) are white, some eyebrows might have been raised at their renting to, and socializing with, nonwhites.

Truman had integrated the armed services, and the GI Bill was enabling black veterans as well as white to get a college education, but “Dixiecrats” like Strom Thurmond still ranted against civil rights legislation in Congress. Even Streetcar‘s title object itself was a sign of how entrenched in the past New Orleans still was: For better or worse, most Northern cities had eliminated their streetcar lines.

Little of this history holds particular relevance for Streetcar‘s action as such, but it’s always present, built into the era, shadowing the drama’s events. Emily Mann’s new production tries to play past it, but the shadow still flickers occasionally. When Stanley invokes the Napoleonic Code, you can’t help thinking about the meager chance black Americans then stood in Southern law courts. The sanitarium to which Blanche is headed at the end never seems a pleasant place, but envisioning it under a segregated health care system, circa 1948, freezes your blood.

Still, Streetcar contains long passages in which race doesn’t matter, though class and sensibility do. In these segments, Mann’s production seems solidly alive, albeit non-electrifying. (Another of Williams’s early titles for the play was Electric Avenue.) Her Blanche and Stanley, Nicole Ari Parker and Blair Underwood, belong to a new generation of media-bred performers who can summon up specific emotions quickly and forcefully. Point by point, everything is done accurately, and the points are often made with great freshness; the difficulty lies in getting the points to coalesce into a person. Instead, the contradictions in the character start to seem like lapses on the playwright’s part—except that our prior experience with Streetcar tells us that it isn’t the playwright who’s failed to weld the contradictions into a unified whole.

Wood Harris, as Mitch, faces a slightly different problem. His role, in the context of the period, has specific analogies among African Americans: the upward striver, the young man who intends to better himself, taking advantage of the new opportunities that society suddenly offers him, endlessly teased by his pals for leaving the old ways behind. But Harris hasn’t found this in the role; he comes off instead as a sort of junior Stanley in training, with misgivings. Only Daphne Rubin-Vega, ahead of her three colleagues in stage experience, seems on the road to assembling the different aspects of Stella into a single presence.

As an African American audience’s straightforward responses make clear, Streetcar is indeed full of contradictions, a play that makes rooting for either side a challenge. Blanche is fragile, but dishonest, self-evading; Stanley’s more open bluntness conceals a vicious streak, as well as one of cunning cruelty. Curiously, the story of Blanche’s disastrous marriage (which this audience absorbs in rapt silence) reveals her similarity to Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: In both cases, Williams extends sympathy, not to the dead gay man, but to the person who has caused his death and now must live with the guilt. I learned that from this performance. For a great play, to make the points accurately and forcefully can suffice.

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