New Century Theater. Theater 14, Smith College. Directed by Gilbert McCauley
This production has been advertised as having an all-African-American cast. It’s a bold experiment, setting a play located by the playwright in St. Louis in a fictional 1937 (the play opened in Chicago in 1944 and on Broadway in 1945) as if it were written about blacks instead of whites — and it works, almost entirely. The play is to a considerable extent autobiographical, and to that extent is about Williams himself torn between loyalty to family, particularly to a disabled sister, and the compelling attraction of life as a writer. Casting black actors in these roles has a peculiar distancing effect, demanding that we abandon any personal interest in Tom Wingfield as a surrogate for Tennessee Williams (note the identical initials, “T.W.”) and approach the play more objectively — and comparatively, at the same time.
For the play as cast cries out, to those familiar with it, for almost point-by-point comparison with the play as originally and usually cast, with white actors. The socioeconomic milieu for the original or usual cast is marginal middle-class fallen on hard times, but with certain identifying valences — the Episcopal Church; Eastern Star (a kind of women’s auxiliary for Masons, though Master Masons are eligible to join also); the selling of magazine subscriptions over the phone, positing that the subscriber has sufficient leisure to read the latest serialized fiction; and the pretense to a past gentility, in the form of Amanda’s flagrant lie about a long line of gentlemen callers. How much of this could hold true for blacks in St. Louis in the 1930s? Actually, perhaps more than we might expect. By the 1930s the African Methodist Episcopal Church was strong and influential, it would seem. And some blacks had made it into the middle class, or had aspirations to it.
So far, so good. Finally, the real test may be whether African-American actors can play these roles convincingly and to good dramatic effect. The answer to that question is a resounding “Yes.” What often happens when a black actor is cast in a nominally white role in the context of a mixed-race but predominantly white cast is that, if the actor is successful in the role, we tend to forget his or her racial distance. But a cast of entirely black actors begs the question of whether we will bring enough empathy to our engrossment in the play itself to “forget” that the actors are black. In the case of an all-black cast it may be that we are not supposed to forget, but rather are supposed to remain aware of racial difference as a constant felt presence — a doubleness that may produce a sort of quasi-Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, an intellectual alienation that encourages us to take a less-engaged, more “historicized” view of the play, the actors, and the author himself.
I wonder if Gilbert McCauley asked himself any of these questions? So far as I can tell, he instructed his actors to play their roles just as if they were written by Williams for them, with no distance between what a white actor might seek to achieve and what a black counterpart might try for. Under such circumstances, it is the play itself that is on trial, not the actors.
So, on those terms, did the play come through? It most definitely did. It is a sweet, charming, funny, and yet very hard-edged play, whose hard edge — the selfish abandonment of his family by the narrator and chief character of the play, Tom — can be played up or down, as the director and collaborative actor may decide to do, but which in any case makes a memorable sympathetic impact on its audience. It does so especially if the crucial scene between Jim, the gentleman caller, and Laura, Tom’s shy, troubled, and disabled sister, succeeds. In this production it succeeded very well, especially in the case of Nikiya Mathis, the only non-Actors Equity member of the cast, a student of acting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, who brought to the difficult role of Laura a fine sensibility, an ability to act in a bodily manner when she has no lines, and a winning aura of being damaged in undefined ways, combined with a deep capacity for openness, if only her morbidly shy reticence can be bridged — as it is, for fifteen stage minutes by the charming overstepper, Jim O’Connor, who gives others much better advice than he is able to take himself.
Viewed from this perspective, the production was quite a success, with Jose Docen as the radically unhappy and impatient son of an impossibly bossy and anxious mother, Amanda, broadly and charmingly played by Joan Valentina. Her nonstop talking to Jim, sitting next to him on the sofa and trapping him with high-blown words, was masterfully well done and clearly provocative of Tom’s impatient outburst, “Mother, what about dinner?”
I wonder what August Wilson would have thought of this experiment. Several years ago Wilson and Robert Brustein, then artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre, had a big debate over the issue of casting black actors in roles written for white actors. An instance in point was the casting of a black actor as the son in an ART production of Shaw’s Major Barbara, directed by Brustein. He was the only black actor in the production, as I recall. Wilson deplored this casting of an “invisible” black actor; Brustein defended it, on grounds that the black actor was able to play the role and that black actors should have the same access to the world’s repertoire that other actors have. Wilson argued that black actors should be playing in plays written about blacks, for blacks, cast with black actors. It was not so much advocacy of a separatist theatre as an insistence that such a theatre was a required and necessary element of self-definition and self-fulfillment of the black race. Wilson’s project of ten plays charting the course of black American history articulates this view — this vision — in an eloquent way. Casting black actors in a production of The Glass Menagerie would, consequently, be a sterile maneuver whose only result would be to demonstrate its great uselessness and inappropriateness. He would not have approved.
There were black audience members for this performance, as no doubt there were for others. If it had not been an African-American cast, I presume they would not have been there. Part of the idea was to bring in new audiences, as was the intent last summer, with Bee Luther Hatchee, hoping they would then come back to see other plays without such dramatic or theatrical content. No one can say whether this intention has been fulfilled. Hartford Stage has done the same, or similar, things, with uncertain results.
Still, it is a worthwhile endeavor, I believe, even if we can count it only a partial success, and then only in the long term.