It happens in theater too…
Stars of the Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker are speaking out against critics of the multi-racial production who have challenged this incarnation of the Tennessee William' drama for that very reason – its non-white cast..
The revival is produced by Stephen C. Byrd and Alia M. Jones of Front Row Productions, who were also behind the all-black cast revival of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway 4 years ago – a trend that some apparently aren't too thrilled about.
Specifically, veteran theatre critic John Lahr of New Yorker magazine, whom Underwood and Parker single out for his December 2011 piece, in which he stated:
"No more infernal all-black productions of Tennessee Williams plays unless we can have their equal in folly: all-white productions of August Wilson."
What Underwood and Parker may not realize is that Lahr has been a staunch critic of all-black productions of *white* plays for some time; I recall his 2009 review of an all-black cast interpretation of Arthur Miller's 1949 stage play, Death Of A Salesman at the Yale Repertory Theatre, in New Haven, CT.
Lahr starts his review with a quote from late African American playwright, August Wilson, as the basis of his core argument that, replacing the Jewish Willy Loman with an African American in Charles S. Dutton, is to "change something elemental in the nature of the play’s lament." The 1996 August Wilson quote he appropriated reads as follows:
“To mount an all-black production of a ‘Death of a Salesman’ or any other play conceived for white actors… is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans… It is an assault on our presence, and our difficult but honorable history in America; and it is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large.”
Recall Wilson's "I Want A Black Director" op-ed which I've shared on this blog in the past; this is certainly very much in-line with that.
And Lahr continues to sing the same tune as he did back then… essentially, no more all-black productions of black plays unless whites can do the same with August Wilson's all-black plays.
But while I understand Wilson's lament, I don't entirely agree with it.
If his above argument (and Lahr's criticism) was centered on the dearth of representations of black people, the lack of stories telling of our varied experiences, the absence of the adaptations of the works by black playwrights compared to their Caucasian contemporaries – in sum, to borrow from Ralph Ellison, our overall invisibility within the performance theatre milieu – that's one wagon I'm willing to jump on.
But that's not the argument being made here. I wouldn't say that mounting all-black productions of plays conceived by and for white actors was a denial of our humanity, our history, and an assault on our presence, or insult to our intelligence.
That (and in essence Lahr's lament) sounds extreme to me, but I'm certainly willing to be convinced otherwise.
We have had, and continue to have similar conversations with respect to cinema, as suggested in the very first sentence of this post.
Wilson's argument insinuates that there is indeed a unique "black experience" and a unique "white experience," and the two are so markedly different that there are no intersections where both meet. But I feel that only further encourages the thinking that we are one singular monolithic group, which we aren't.
What do you think?
Obviously, a work like Roots, a uniquely African experience, set in a specific time period, certainly wouldn't mean the same thing if the characters were all white. It simply wouldn't exist.
Or a tale on the Jewish Holocaust and its aftermath simply wouldn't work with an African American cast.
Of course, one could surpress the actual events themselves, and instead focus on the very essence of brutal oppression that both groups of people have in common historically; and in that case, the color of the skin of the players wouldn't matter.
This takes us back to that age-old discussion we've had periodically on how to define "blackness," or the proverbial "black experience," or "black stories," or "black film" – all labels that simply cannot be readily given meaning to. Are there stories/experiences that are uniquely "black" and others that are uniquely "white" that wouldn't work in the reverse? Does emphasizing those differences help or hinder our collective progression, especially in this so-called (false) "post-racial" Obama era that we keep hearing about?
The synopsis for Death Of A Salesman describes it as:
… a play about a "middle-aged salesman who is no longer able to earn a living. He receives only a small commission as he ages, and he slowly loses his mind and attempts to kill himself by inhaling gas from the water heater or from crashing his car. He spends most of his time dreaming instead of actually acting. He is obsessed with achieving the so-called "American Dream" – one that he never fully realizes, as he does kill himself in the end."
I've never read nor seen Miller's play, so I'm not an expert on the work, but based on the above description, is that so uniquely a "white experience" that it's completely outside the scope of a black man's experience?
You can read the rest of the New Yorker review HERE. I'd love to read all your thoughts on the questions posed here, as these are all ideas that I myself struggle with from time to time.
Blair Underwood posted the following on his Facebook page as an added response to critics of the play's multi-racial casting:
Once you know your history and know that there was indeed a culture of people (in the 1700s), endemic to Louisianna called the "gens de colour libre," or "free people of color," and that these people owned plantations & some actually owned their own slaves, there is no basis to dismiss the backstory of our Dubois sisters who hail from their family owned plantation called Belle Reeve. Or to dismiss the part of the story where Blanche Dubois pines for an oil millionaire called Shep Huntleigh. If these dismissive Nay Sayers knew their history, they would know that there were a number of black people that owned oil wells in the 30s & 40s…. As long as we stay in our place & do only the great "Black" classics, like Fences, Porgy & Bess, A Raisin In The Sun, etc. your artistry will be lauded & touted, (as it should be), but if you dare step into the deified realm of Tennessee Williams, expect profound resistance & resentment. We are not being judged based on the work. It is the "power of the idea," that seems to unnerve the "elite;" the idea that people of color could produce & perform Tennessee Williams and do it well. The beauty in all of this is that when an ideas time has come it cannot & will not be ignored!
Props to him for penning that, but lemme jump in here real quick and say, seriously, no disrespect to Tennessee Williams, but we don't have to reimagine his works with black casts, because we DO have *our* own original plays about black people, written by black playwrights, begging to be given the full stage treatment, whether on Broadway or off. There's absolutely no need to prove *ourselves* to anyone by performing plays originally written by and about white characters, is there? Not that I'm against these adaptations. I'm glad that we live in a time when this actually can happen.
My point is just that there's a plethora of work out there, set in both historical and contemporary times, that already tell stories that revolve primarily around the lives of black people. We've seen 2 of them on Broadway in the last 2 seasons – The Mountaintop (written by Katori Hall) and Stick Fly (written by Lydia R. Diamond) – the latter is up for a Tony Award.
Producer Stephen Byrd (one of the very few African-American producers on Broadway) should maybe consider leaving Tennessee Williams alone for his next production and, uh, come back home, if you catch my drift.
But I get it; I understand; it's all about the bottomline, with his goal likely being to limit his risk by focusing on brand-name properties, and performers – the goal being to fill as many seats as possible, with as diverse an audience as possible.
In a recent Wall Street Journal Piece, Byrd was quoted as saying: "I'd be somewhat reluctant to go out with an unknown play… You get a double bite of the apple… You get people who want to see 'Streetcar.' And you get people who just want to see Blair," adding that "there's a group between Tyler Perry fans and August Wilson fans that hasn't been tapped," and his goal is to reach that specific audience.
So I'd say expect to see more productions with marketing materials billing them first as "An All-black Production Of…"
And with that, critics like John Lahr will continue to criticize, while August Wilson turns in his grave.