a theatre, film & pop culture review
I know this is old news — heck, the current Broadway run of A Streetcar Named Desire has been in performances since the beginning of April — but director Emily Mann recently tore open that pesky old wound whilst moderating a plenary at this year’s TCG National Conference. Complaining about critic John Lahr’s request from way back in December that there be no more all-black productions of Tennessee Williams’s plays, she was vindicated when the New Yorker appointed Hilton Als to review the production instead of Lahr.
Always and forever a huge Williams fan, I still questioned why we needed a revival of this play, but beyond that I couldn’t care one iota about Mann’s multiracial casting (though this does mark the first such casting of the play on Broadway since its premiere in 1947). Apparently, no one besides Lahr did either (while most critics did find fault with the casting of specific actors) — which is as it should be.
On the other hand, Lahr’s request included the snide addition “unless we can have their equal in folly: all-white productions of August Wilson.” This comment is ridiculous for one obvious reason: Wilson’s characters reference their blackness. So unless some ballsy (read: idiotic) director-dramaturg totally mangles Wilson’s work by deleting such specificities, one cannot actually stage a production of Fences starring white folks. But what if Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle wasn’t focused on issues of race throughout the century — would we then be able to have white casts perform his plays?
Probably not. And while that is Lahr’s point, and it’s a good one to an extent, he’s still a little misguided in making it. Streetcar — and Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey Into Night and all those other great (white) American classics — don’t explore the characters’ whiteness. But Ruined, Topdog/Underdog, The Brother/Sister Plays – and almost every play written by a black artist — deal with racial issues that keep them from being subjected to color blind casting to this degree. Sure, there’s the infrequent work such as David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People (working class whites in Southie) that requires whiteness to some degree in its casting, but those works are much fewer and farther between.
While there isn’t much of a “conclusion” here, another, larger, question looms in my mind: Can an artist of color write a play that doesn’t deal — intentionally or intrinsically — with race? And if s/he can: Can we (critics, audiences, etc.) let it be seen in that way?