Friday, August 17, 2018

An Exclusive TWTC New Orleans Timeline!


A TWTC timeline

  • 1718 - New Orleans is founded
  • 1720s-30s - Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop is constructed, though likely it was not a smithy at the time. Eventually, it will be reputed to be one of (if not) the oldest structures used as a bar in the nation.
  • 1803 - The Louisiana Purchase: The United States obtains a vast expanse of land including New Orleans from the French.
  • 1911 - Thomas Lanier Williams is born in Columbus, Mississippi.
  • 1918 - Tom and his family are transplanted from Clarksdale Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri. This would be New Orleans' 200th year.
  • 1938 - In the last few days of the year, Tom Williams moves to New Orleans for the first time. One of his first homes here is 722 Toulouse Street, where he stays in the attic of the rooming house lorded over by a domineering landlady. He becomes acquainted with the Quarter characters and locales, including James's Bar, a gay haunt, and Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, which by this time is a bar. The spot he stayed in just prior to 722 for a few days was 431 Royal Street.
  • 1939 - Tom departs New Orleans to head out west with a teacher named Jim Parrot. During his westward adventures, he's being sought by some famous emissaries of New York theatre who have trouble tracking the vagrant down!
  • 1941 - Williams returned to NOLA to work on some material, and during this time he was a resident of 708 Toulouse and 722 Dumaine Street (not to be confused with 722 Toulouse, from before!)
  • 1944 - The Glass Menagerie opens in a snowstorm in Chicago, but manages to garner critical praise and audience applause. It's headed to Broadway!
  • 1945 - Tom (now Tennessee) has his first big break for The Glass Menagerie, a memory play that is the first in what will be a triptych of his autobiographical works about love, family, and writing. He'll ride the wings of fame all over America and beyond, bringing him back to...
  • 1946 - Tennessee is working on The Poker Night, which will become A Streetcar Named Desire, from his perch at 623 1/2 St Peter Street. During this time, he's dating a local man named Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzalez. On future visits, before he purchases his home, he would stay at the Maison De Ville at 727 Toulouse Street (just across from 722!) when he visited, or he'd get a room at the Monteleone with his grandfather. He also occasioned the Hotel Royal-Orleans until he was turned away with his long-time partner Frank Merlo.
  • 1947 - Streetcar opens on Broadway to great acclaim. It stars Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, Jessica Tandy, and Marlon Brando, and is directed by Elia Kazan. Williams has cemented his place as America's foremost playwright. He takes home his first Pulitzer Prize.
  • 1951 - The film version of Streetcar is released. Vivien Leigh plays Blanche, replacing Jessica Tandy. Through this film, the words of Williams and the spirit of New Orleans is carried across the globe and into the imaginations of millions of people all over the world.
  • 1958 Suddenly Last Summer, another New Orleans play, opens Off-Broadway under a double bill alongside Something Unspoken, which is collectively titled Garden District after the Uptown neighborhood.
  • 1962  - Williams buys his home in the French Quarter at 1014 Dumaine. It's located across the street from Marti's, which will be one of his favorite restaurants for years to come. Local theatre legend Ricky Graham even had the pleasure of seeing Williams around when he worked there later in the playwright's life.
  • 1966 - The Mutilated and The Gnadiges Fraulein open under the collective title Slapstick Tragedy on Broadway. The Mutilated is a Christmas story that takes place in the Quarter.
  • 1975 - Williams releases his Memoirs, which provide a frank account of his life, and particularly of his time in the French Quarter.
  • 1977 - Vieux Carré, the second retrospective play in his autobiographical triptych, opens for a very short run on Broadway. It looks back on the days following his move to New Orleans in 1938/39, and picks up almost where The Glass Menagerie left off.
  • 1981 Something Cloudy, Something Clear completes the triptych of memory plays, following a writer who has relocated to Provincetown, Massachusetts to complete a commercial work meant to be his big break. It picks up (more or less) shortly after the westward hi-jinx of The Writer and Sky in Vieux Carré.
  • 1983 - In January, Williams makes his final visit to 1014 Dumaine Street, the house he sold to Dr. Lutz, who still owns it to this day, with the condition that the playwright could keep quarters there until his death. On February 25, Williams is found dead in his hotel room in New York City. The cause of death is initially reported as choking, but is later amended to the actual cause of death: seconal poisoning. He's buried in St. Louis, but Dr. Kenneth Holditch and a number of other New Orleanians arrange a memorial for Williams at the St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square.
  • 1986 - The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival is established.
  • 2011 - The Comédie Francaise produces A Streetcar Named Desire in Paris. It is the first American play to be produced in the Salle Richelieu. This is the year Williams would have been 100.
  • 2015 - The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans is founded as the first theatre company to focus on the works of America's Greatest Playwright, right here in his spiritual home.
  • 2016 - TWTC produces the world premiere of The Strange Play, which takes place in a French Quarter courtyard and is likely to have been completed during or shortly after his first stay in the Quarter in 1938/39.
  • 2018 - New Orleans turns 300. TWTC celebrates with its own triptych of New Orleans plays: Vieux Carré, The Mutilated, and Suddenly Last Summer in its 4th season. 
    A Fabulous View of the Quarter by Tennessee Williams

Don't forget to grab your tickets to Vieux Carré, now running through August 25th! Experience TW's French Quarter for yourself at the Marigny Opera House featuring local legends Adella Gautier, Janet Shea, Tracey Collins, Kyle Daigrepont, and more!

Bonus: A Fabulous View of Tennessee from the Quarter.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Liz, Augustin, & Tennessee Talk About Boys

Augustin: The year is 1947. The world was not ready. 
“Catch”, he brayed, and she called back, “What?”
And then we all got a load of Stanley’s meat.
It’s in the first few moments of A Streetcar Named Desire that we’re introduced to the swagger and eye candy of Stanley Kowalski. He disappears from the stage as quickly as he arrived, giving us a tease of the danger and the desire that surrounds him.
The world wasn’t ready. Until this moment, no man in western literature since the Greek and Roman heroes had been so lionized—not as just a warrior or a winner, but as a steaming heap of sexy. He was more than a one-syllable “man”…he was a three-syllable “may-uh-nuh”. Discussing a play like Streetcar, it can seem at first reductive to discuss the beefcake when such rich characters as Blanche, Stella, and the arguably more vulnerable Mitch are waiting in the wings for their next entrance. But there’s something unique about the smoldering Stanley that goes unnoticed in our modern age.
Tennessee Williams eroticized men in a way no other American playwright had before. He set them in front of the lens of complex women characters often torn between longing and danger—the two ends of desire. This wasn’t just unique of Williams as a playwright. It set him apart as a trailblazer for queer drama.

Oh, hey, Stanley.
Liz: As Tennessee Williams saw it, homosexuality was his “selected” way of life. His queer perspective shapes his written work, something that academics and artists love to excavate for their deeper meanings. What is wonderful about Williams’ treatment of homosexual desire is his frankness. At a time when such things were not meant for polite society, Williams’ writing blatantly explored his (sometimes dark) desire for male bodies. In a 1975 interview about his published memoirs, Williams said, “Sexuality is a basic part of my nature. I never considered my homosexuality as anything to be disguised. Neither did I consider it a matter to be over-emphasized. I consider it an accident of nature.”

In the same 1975 interview, Williams commented that his voice can often be found in his female characters. So like you said, A Streetcar Named Desire’s Stella and Blanche have the visceral experience of Stanley as a figure to be feared, ridiculed, and yet, lusted after.

A: So in a way, using women as the protagonists and the lens through which we understood the men onstage, he was exploring desire for men from a safer space, and that one degree of separation was enough for “polite society” as you termed it, to accept his brand of desire.

L: Speaking of undisguised but un-over-emphasized desire, Suddenly Last Summer introduces us to the poet Sebastian, whose desires and desirability take on a dark hue in the light of his sexually exploitative practices with young men in North Africa, and his tragic end being literally devoured by dark-skinned street children--gobbled up by the darker side of his longing.. Sebastian was certainly a predator feeding sexually off men, and yet, not an entirely undesirable one. The horror Mrs. Venable displays at her son also invites the audience’s empathy. Just as we see in Streetcar, it seems that desire and danger were, for Williams, entertwined. The character of Catharine, Sebastian’s cousin states, “we all use each other and that's what we think of as love.” Consuming flesh is, in turns, appealing and appalling; we find such appetites lurking in our most intimate relationships.
Elizabeth Taylor's Catharine sees more of
Sebastian in the film than we do onstage.

The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian by illustrates
 the painful juxtaposition between voluptuous
ecstasy and pain.
A: What’s so striking about Sebastian is that we never see him onstage, and yet—like the children that eat his flesh—we’re ravenous for him. Catharine and Violet both paint such a vivid picture of him that even in his absence, he’s erotic.

L: Like Skipper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. 

A: Right; both Skipper and Sebastian are dead at the outset of the play and yet they’re also the impetus for all of the action. In Sebastian’s case, it was his inability to negotiate sex with men that killed him. In the case of Skipper, it’s Brick’s inability to reciprocate the kind of love that Skipper was afflicted by that ultimately starved and killed Skipper.  In both instances, shame surrounding sexuality and men was what ended their lives.

Anika Noni Rose as Maggie pleads Terrence Howard's Brick
L: Meanwhile, Brick is a fading beauty, an aging football star—check two boxes of desirability for the people around him—whose emotional repression, gay or not, has resulted in an unhappy and sexually unfulfilling marriage. Skipper looms over him as a spectre. Brick’s bitterness and alcoholism is escalated by his rejection of Skipper’s declaration of desire, and Skipper’s subsequent suicide. Brick is destroyed by his self-denial and repression; he is doomed to a life of mendacity.

A: Unless he can, to borrow a Shanley quote by another queer icon, “Snap out of it!”…which is what his father, Big Daddy begs him to do. Just like Brick is being slowly disintegrated by his notions of male affection being dirty, Big Daddy knows that his entire fortune is built on the backs of two men in a reciprocal, healthy gay relationship—Jack Straw and Peter Ochello are two more dead gay men who add to the situation of the play, but they’re an illustration of what benefits pure love can generate.
L: …And can we just talk for a minute about Ollie Olsen in One Arm? Ollie is a former sailor and boxer, a hustler, and a powerful figure. Ollie is objectified blatantly in One Arm, as the seedy underbelly of desire both devours and sustains him.

A: More overtly than in other cases, his sexuality is his currency, and he thinks he’s always got good credit because he’s totally unaware of the emotional withdrawals he’s engaging in.

L: He also shapes those around him, his physical beauty, anger, and vulnerability leaving an impact on his patrons long after he is no longer available for their physical pleasure.

A: And before you know it, he’s way in debt (emotionally), and it’s too late for him to turn his life around. Between the real, deep tragedy and the fact that the screenplay was sooooooo gay for its time, it’s not surprising it took Moisés Kaufman adapting the play version for audiences to get a really good look at this character.
Adler Hyatt's Ollie in TWTC's recent One Arm is reached for by anyone in his sphere, but he is unable to reach back.

L: Desire is not simple in Williams’ work; it spells disaster when denied, yet it may devour us when indulged. Williams’ male objects of desire frighten and intoxicate, and Williams’ work plunges us into the churning consequence of our basest -- most beautiful -- nature.

A: I feel like there’s still so much more to discuss…We’ll be back next time to discuss Chance Wayne from Sweet Bird of Youth, Alvaro Mangiacavallo from The Rose Tattoo, and the semi-nefarious Chicken from Kingdom of Earth!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Introducing Liz Bruce

A Note From Augustin J Correro, Co-Artistic Director & Sometimes-Blogger
Hey, TWTC Family!
The last year has been a whirlwind at TWTC, and we've fallen behind on blogging. We're growing so fast and producing theatre is no small feat. That's why we've recruited help to be sure we're still turning out quality content! Please join TWTC in welcoming Liz Bruce as a contributing blogger!

Why Tennessee Means NOLA To Me
by Liz Bruce, M.A., M.F.A., Contributor
I wasn’t born in New Orleans, but the city began bewitching me at an early age. That bewitchment, I owe primarily to Tennessee Williams. I remember it clearly: assigned to read The Glass Menagerie for English class, I found myself captivated by the visceral, vibrant words that Williams wrote. I quickly checked out a Williams anthology from the school library and was soon swept away by this far off land where such lovely, dark, and tumultuous things happened.Williams made sure I knew that New Orleans was special.

Years later, when my now-husband gave me my first physical introduction to his native New Orleans, I felt some trepidation. Being from New York, I was raised with the snobbish attitude that New York City is the center of the entire world; no other city could possibly compare. What if New Orleans failed to live up to the myth Williams had given me? 

I needn’t have worried. It was a warm day when I drove into New Orleans, and as my AC was broken, I had the windows rolled down. A favorite song of mine was playing on the radio as I pulled up to an intersection, and I was dancing to it, blissfully unaware, caught up in my groovy tunes. From the next car over, a peal of laughter rang out, and I turned, ready to be embarrassed, but the driver simply cheered and started dancing along with me. There we were, strangers stopped at a red light, having a dance party, sharing in a moment of unadulterated joy. Just like that, I was hooked. This was my city.

I moved to New Orleans about six months ago. As a newly minted and proud transplant, standing on the brink of my first Mardi Gras season, a celebration enhanced by the advent of the tricentennial, I’m finding New Orleans a home I didn’t know I was looking for, and I sometimes can’t fathom why anyone would choose to be anywhere else. In this, I feel a particular kinship with that other transplant, Tennessee Williams himself, who not only called New Orleans his spiritual home, but who also famously said, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

Williams’s writings communicated New Orleans to a broader world in a way that continues to reverberate from the heart of the city outward. His homes and haunts occupy many corners of the city that can still be discovered today. The madness of a boarding house landlady in Vieux Carré comes from Williams’s own demented landlady. The famous Desire streetcar route ran right past William’s St. Peter Street apartment, and Williams’s favorite bistro, Galatoire’s, makes a brief appearance in Streetcar, with Stanley declaring vehemently that he isn’t going there for supper. 

But Williams’ writing allowed outsiders to know the streets in a way that moved beyond its geographical points of interest. Williams’s descriptions of New Orleans, often found in his detailed stage directions, invite audiences to feel, to smell, to hear: In the opening of A Streetcar Named Desire, for example, Williams describes the “raffish charm” of the poorer neighborhood, the lyricism of the sky, the faint smell of bananas and coffee, and the ever-present sound of, “a tinny piano being played with the infatuated fluency of brown fingers. This ‘Blue Piano’ expresses the spirit of the life which goes on here.”

Williams moved to New Orleans when he was 28, and there found an escape from a troubled family life and a puritanical past. In New Orleans, Williams found safety and freedom as he had never experienced before; he found a sacred slice of bohemia where artists, adventurers, and lovers could live unfettered. Williams referred to New Orleans as a “vagabond's paradise” and remarked, “In New York, eccentricities, authentic ones, are ignored. In Los Angeles, they’re arrested. Only in New Orleans are they permitted to develop their eccentricities into art.” New Orleans was a place where William’s creativity and individuality would not only be nurtured, but celebrated. 

Certainly, a defining characteristic of this safe haven was New Orlean’s position as a singular bastion of sensual fantasy and permissiveness, set apart from the rest of the world. It was in New Orleans that Williams selected homosexuality as his, “sexual way of life.” Williams himself even told the story of losing his virginity to a sailor who climbed up his fire escape from a party below. New Orleans spoke in daylight what was too often whispered in darkness, and that suited Williams just fine.

Williams’ words painted a picture of New Orleans that was at once cosmopolitan and decaying, a city of glorious contradictions and tangles of difference. New Orleans was a place where the senses were titillated, awakened, and sometimes even assaulted. It was an intermingling of races, sexualities, celebrations, and sometimes despair. For Williams, this churning mess of spirit and flesh was what he needed.
Spirit and flesh continue their dance in the streets of New Orleans today, something that I like to think would make Tennessee Williams proud. His legacy continues to spread the good news of this strange, wonderful city to the wider world, and New Orleans in turn does its part to keep his legacy alive, through productions of his plays and celebrations of his life and work. 

In all that Williams has said of New Orleans, my favorite is a simple sentence from his journal: “Here surely is the place I was made for if any place on this funny old world.” 

I don’t think anyone could have said it better.

Hey, Gang! It's Augustin again. Don't forget to grab your tickets to One Arm by Moises Kaufman, adapted from the short story and screenplay by Tennessee Williams, opening March 22 in collaboration with the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival! On Saturday, March 24, there'll be a conversation with Mr. Kaufman facilitated by me and the New Orleans Advocate's Bradford Rhines! Just click the image below and reserve your seats now!

Tickets Now On Sale!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Mother's Day Post

Tennessee Williams' Aesthetic of Reminiscence 

by Augustin J Correro

Rose & baby Tom Williams with their mother Edwina
This time last year, my life came to a surreal halt. Time moved, but not in its usual fashion. Like a Salvadore Dali dreamscape, everything was recognizable but wrong. Balls that were in the air either suspended or sank slowly to through gravity while I watched them drop. I was paralyzed for weeks and weakened for months after that. The balls I let drop, I knew would either break or bounce, and I’d have to pick them up or clean them up someday, but not whatever day it was—which even that was confusing and immaterial; the days all melted together for a space of time I can’t even pinpoint now. I even failed to complete a triptych of blog posts in this very blog because I was so incapacitated that all I could do was to make sure the shows I was directing were going up and my duties were complete at my 9-to-5 job.

On May 13, 2016, the Friday after Mother's Day, my mother died in a sudden, horrific circumstance. To make matters worse, I had been estranged from her for about five years. Unpacking all of those emotions, thoughts, and questions meant that I’d often find all my things on the floor when it came to lay out plans for anything else. I’m still not sure if it was good or bad that two of the three plays I’ve directed since then have dealt primarily with grief and dying. I like to think it helped me to unpack. We always hope our theatre is cathartic.

As I write this, it’s the evening startling her death-day and the first Mother's Day following her death. I continue to unravel the complexities of a relationship rich with positive and negative sentiments. It makes me think of the bittersweet aesthetic of reminiscence in the plays of Tennessee Williams, and it makes me feel less alone in the world.

Laurette Taylor originating the role of
Amanda Wingfield in
The Glass Menagerie.
Something that continues to touch us in his plays is the tender, sometimes painful treatment of people and places that we’ve lost. Williams was a trailblazer in his presentation of affectionate agony, displaying a masterful expression of remorseful ecstasy. He makes us pause and, almost subconsciously, consider how we move about in our own relationships with those around us. In the expanse of a few hours, he forces us to reckon with the nasty and the glorious, usually from the same people. We say “Yes—that’s it. It’s complicated. And it’s simple”. Mel Gussow wrote in the New York Times the day Williams died, “Though his images were often violent, he was a poet of the human heart.” Ain’t that always the way? Violent, gentle. poignant, terrible. Human relations can be messy, but Williams had a way of framing it with frankness and truth.

Tom’s treatment of Laura and Amanda as he looks back on them in retrospect is perhaps the most famous example. It doesn’t stop there. Two of his even more retrospective, pseudo-autobiographical plays, Vieux Carre and Something Cloudy, Something Clear treat moments plucked from he past with even more care than a shy girl treats a glass unicorn. Looking back on snarling matches with landladies who just want to be loved, actresses locked in feuds, and even his estranged lover Frank Merl, Williams offers us a glimpse into what is more important than any well-aimed shot to someone’s ego: the time and the memory of the time, and knowing that someone, something, someplace mattered.

Katharine Hepburn's Violet Venable  remembers
her son Sebastian in the film version of Suddenly Last Summer.
His own regret over having not been there for his sister leading up to her lobotomy, his never really reconciling with his father, his estrangement from Frank leading up to his death, and so many other transgressions he assigned himself fault for gave Williams a unique perspective on this topic of idealized remorse. His characters would grapple with similar longing for things long-lost throughout his plays, and they certainly play well: Blanche and Alan; Alma and the John Buchanan of her childhood; a crone and Lord Byron, perhaps her one true love; Amanda and Blue Mountain; Serafina and Rosario; Violet and Catharine remembering Sebastian;even that something unspoken between Skipper and Brick. Their resolution would never come from a deus ex machina. These characters received resolution through acceptance of the situation—cherishing the memory, but understanding the immutability of their circumstances.

It’s through his non-judgmental handling of people who have trespassed against others that we’re able to identify with the injurer and the injured. He exalts the tender memory without shying away from the rough edges of recollection. The fights and swears are given equal footing with the kind actions, but the kinder parts shine more brightly because there’s something of them that’s inherently more pure and true about them.

This is how theatre heals and nourishes the spirit. This is how it touches people from all walks of life. It’s why it’s vital. It’s why I do it. This one’s for you, Mom. Happy Mother's Day.
Tennessee & Edwina Williams

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Coloring Classics

Actors, Casting, Race, and Tennessee Williams

by Augustin J Correro

This Blog Post Is Equipped with Three Disclaimers and a Trigger Warning for Everyone’s Safety.

Trigger Warning: This post contains one writer’s ideas regarding theatrical production in regards to race, racial symbolism, and other race-and-ethnicity-centered topics. It centers around casting, concept, and actors.

     In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, there is a ballet in the second act performed by Siamese characters that depicts the story of the “Small House of Uncle Thomas”. The story is adapted by the dancers from Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s 19th century novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The selection of this particular story as is a tribute to the King’s children’s governess Anna, a white English woman. The anti-slavery message is pointed, but in The King and I, as is the case in so many classics, the colonial white savior comes to teach a valuable lesson to the less “evolved” characters. The result is that the message may be delivered in a way that isn’t most effective.
American Slavery, as explained by Siamese dancers,
as told by Rodgers & Hammerstein
     But what if Anna is a black actor? Does her place as the symbol of the savior-teacher mean something else (something more?) if she’s not white? Can it? Must it?
     Examining to another classic, what happens if Romeo and Juliet is cast primarily (or entirely) with Latinx actors? While it can change the meaning of the production, must it? Can it not? Does it have to? Is it different for each audience member?
     Theatre makers make several considerations when it comes to casting, play selection, hiring, and staging. Sometimes symbols get lost—especially in classics in which the symbols can easily be taken for granted. As you might have guessed, it’s no different for Tennessee Williams. This essay attempts to scratch the surface of the topics of race and ethnicity in casting and producing the plays of Tennessee Williams.

     A conversation has been ignited in New Orleans regarding the place of black bodies in Williams’ plays, and the place of Williams’ plays in a world where the value of black bodies has increased exponentially since the plays were written. I can think of no better setting for this conversation than in New Orleans. Recently, I enjoyed a panel discussion prior to Southern Rep Theatre’s production of Sweet Bird of Youth which explored this topic in detail. A panel of all African-American writers described their connections to the universality of Williams’ work while also negotiating the sensitivities of racially diverse casting and a lack of in-written black characters in classic plays (The panel description can be viewed midway down the page here). While some of the opinions expressed might be unpopular, this writer and theatre-maker agrees that the conversation must be explored. For various reasons, I will not be discussing the symbolism in that specific production of Sweet Bird, but will instead pose several “what-if” scenarios from A Streetcar Named Desire.

First Disclaimer: The White Man Has a Head Start
It is worth stating that white actors have a massive advantage in regards to the availability of roles in theatre, film, and television. This is because the dominant voices in storytelling have been white for centuries in Western Civilization. Naturally, those white storytellers write white characters. The same is generally true for male writers writing stories which primarily concern men. It is something theatre-makers should be conscious of, although there is no one monolithic solution to inequity in opportunity. It’s absolutely true of Tennessee Williams, but rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water and stopping production of Williams altogether, we choose to continue producing Williams plays with this conundrum as a consideration. Ergo, if we wait around for more roles for actors of color to play, the gulf between them and opportunity will only continue to expand, since there’s such a wealth of white writing, and white writers will continue to tell their stories.

Second Disclaimer: 
The playwright in question was white. He tried as best as he could figure, as a moneyed white gay man in the mid-1900s, to represent the underrepresented. We therefore assume for the purpose of this essay that any racist ideals he ascribed to were not purposeful or malicious, and that he was not in fact the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. There is evidence of a continually evolving racial and cultural understanding in his published and unpublished writing.

Third Disclaimer:
This writer is also white, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  

Terrence Howard & James Earl Jones in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

So How Do We Inject Actors of Color Into Classics?

An oversimplification would be, “you just do”. However, there are some pitfalls when you are faced with two devices: stunt casting and problematic symbolism.

Stunt casting is rarely the actor’s fault. It’s usually a tool by a director or a producer in order to jar audiences into buying tickets. Stunt casting is when an actor is selected not because they’re right or ideal for the role, but because they’re popular, or might be incendiary, or for some other unartistic rationale not rooted in the text. Think of a community theatre production of A Streetcar Named Desire where the local grande dame and president of the Ladies’ Auxiliary at age 45 is selected to play Blanche—or worse, Stella. That’s stunt casting. It’s sin is obliviousness or willfully ignoring the problems it creates.

Symbolism is more nuanced—it’s trickier to sort out when it’s an issue. Sometimes, it’s not. There are plays which don’t use symbolism, in which case, the race of the actors really has no repercussion on the story. Of course, it’s good to be sensitive that the only black character isn’t a villain or a minstrel-type character, or that the only woman isn’t a loose floozy, or that the women don’t talk to one another exclusively about men (see: Bechdel Test, flawed but a point of interest). However, while it’s easy to mistake Williams for a steadfast realist, considering wide-release films and traditional stagings would convince audiences of that misconception, Williams used symbolism. He used symbolism a lot—and often the symbols were bodies onstage.

Problematic symbolism happens when the semiotics are ignored or are socially irresponsible. Semiotics is defined as the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. It is a realm of considerations which must be carefully examined, even if they could be easily overlooked. So: The entire cast is white except for Stanley and the Negro Woman. Even the Mexican woman selling flowers is a white woman (oops!). But then Stanley rapes Blanche, meaning that literally the only black man in the story is a rapist. This is a challenge for the director to work through before making this choice. Here’s why: if there is a dominant social narrative which is supported by the story being told onstage, but which is an unjust narrative, choices should be reconsidered. The dominant social narrative here is that black men are a danger to white women, that they are rapists, ill-bred, crude, and trifling (i.e., they will have sex with you and your pregnant sister, whether you like it or not). Because this is a dominant social narrative for large swaths of the country, the producer either feeds the unjust narrative, or doesnt: it can’t be neither. Stanley as a symbol represents a new world order which is both tender and overpowering, and this gets lost if he literally represents the fear white women have of virile black men.

So Where Does That Leave The Brilliant Actor I Want To Play Stanley?

Do we just not cast this guy because we’re afraid of the implications of a black male body committing rape? Well, no. This is where color-conscious casting comes into play. Color-conscious casting is not the same as color-blind casting. The latter operates on a defunct assumption that race means nothing to anyone, and that there are no implications of different colored bodies in different spaces. It sounds great, but it doesn’t really function. Even if the person casting decides it’s color-blind, that doesn’t mean that the audience or the actors involved share that color-blindness.
Color-conscious casting is much more complex. It’s casting with the understanding that there are implications to the choices as well as a separate, unequal pool of opportunities for actors of color, and choosing to craft and aesthetic and execute a production with that in mind. Again using Streetcar as an example, I am made to recall the 2012 Broadway production directed by Emily Mann starring Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker. While Blanche, Stanley, and Mitch were black, Stella and other members of the cast were of various skin tones and racial and ethnic origins. This meant that Stanley was not the only black body, and that the heroes were not uniformly white.
Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker in A Streetcar Named Desire

Common Producer Complaint: But Actors of Color Just Don’t Come Out!

This is a serious challenge for producers. Even Broadway productions have to make pointed efforts to invite and entice actors of color to show up for auditions. The summit of theatre arts has been long painted out of reach for communities of color, so there’s work to be done. 
What should be undone is the snarl of ideas that historical precedent and historical accuracy are valid reasons to bar bodies of color from opportunities. 
We as theatre-makers should do as much as we can to see the work of artists of color, whose platforms might not be as prominent as white artists. You may even have to go where black, brown, red, and yellow people are. The next step is to cast who is best for roles, period. From time to time, this may mean casting someone who is talented and right for the role who has a small skills gap. If it means that your director must work more to give an actor of color some additional coaching because he/she/they didn’t get to go to theatre camp each summer, it may be what needs to happen to reflect the community in which you’re presenting the work. 

It’s Not All Bad News, Though.

Recently, I read an article, the title of which was misleading: For the First Time Ever an Asian-American Has Been Cast in a Classic Tennessee Williams Role. It reads, "For the First Time Ever an Asian American Has Been Cast in a Classic Tennessee Williams Role".
LaKesha Glover in Small Craft Warnings. Photo by Ride Hamilton
At first sight, this would imply that no Asian-American ever has been cast in any iconic Williams role. Upon reading the article, it’s only about Maggie Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Either way, it’s a step in the right direction. TWTC’s production of The Rose Tattoo Featured an actor of Thai descent as Serafina Delle Rose in 2016. In 2015, Small Craft Warnings featured two African-American actors in roles almost exclusively ever played by white actors: they were messy characters, but they were situated in a room full of otherwise messy characters (i.e., the full burden of being violent, loud, and flawed didn’t fall summarily on the backs of the black folk).

People are symbols in Williams. There’s a responsibility that comes with storytelling and wielding symbols. Race and color do carry meaning. These three facts are intertwined, and should be handled with same same care as any other aspect of a production.

In summary, if we expect plays by Williams to be exalted in the same way as plays by Shakespeare, which I think they deserve, the doors to a multicultural society of actors, designers, and storytellers must be open so that they can lay hands on his plays. Williams’ plays are American. Now America is changed—the lens through which we view her playwright’s theatre must be checked and adjusted from time to time.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Lifelong Fan

This Essay is an excerpt from the 2017 Krewe of Armeinius Ball Program.

“It was just not something you talked about. They could put you away—and they did put people away.” This is how Armeinius member Albert Carey recalls the topic of homosexuality in the 1950s. In a period when attraction to the same sex was considered a symptom of mental illness, Albert remembers, “You couldn’t even breathe the word ‘gay’. I just had the feelings but didn’t have the words.” In 1957, Tennessee Williams changed Albert’s life. When he attended Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Civic Theatre, he witnessed a father and a son having a tense but tender conversation about the kinds of feelings Albert had, but which he could not name. Victor Jory’s Big Daddy didn’t care who Brick loved. Having been raised by “two old sisters”, the patriarch was more concerned with the wellbeing and sobriety of his son, played by William Daniels, than who he slept beside.

Albert Carey with TWTC Co-Artistic Directors Augustin J Correro & Nick Shackleford
“The next day I went to the library…and that’s how he saved my life.” Albert began reading everything he could by Williams and other gay writers. It was a revelation. Gradually, Albert would become involved in Gay Mardi Gras, which he’s been a part of ever since. In 2009, he worked with Tim Wolff on the film “Sons of Tennessee Williams”, a documentary on the gay Krewes. According to Albert, Wolff saw Tennessee Williams as the most “out” American of his day, which accounts for the title. To many, Williams was a guide in the 1960s and ‘70s, as the community was coming of age. Williams had already blazed the trail—enduring the barbs and snares and proving it could be done while remaining in one piece. Just like the gay community over the past seventy years, Williams and his works were often dubbed “squalid” and “perverse”. In spite of the harshest criticism, however, the community and Williams pressed forward. Albert has had the pleasure of watching Gay Mardi Gras develop since its outset, now a cultural pearl of New Orleans.
Albert and Tim Wolff don’t simply imagine the connection between Williams and Gay Mardi Gras. Unquesitonably, they both have a unique place in the cultural zeitgeist of the Crescent City. The portrait of the French Quarter in A Streetcar Named Desire is perhaps the most iconic ever drawn. Today, Albert commits to the cultivation of Williams’ theatrical legacy in New Orleans: since its inception, Albert has been a supporter of the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans. TWTC, as it is called for short, is the first theatre company in the country to focus on the works of America’s greatest playwright. Albert sees his support of the company as a debt he’s repaying to Williams. “It’s because of him I realized the beauty of us all. It’s not squalid—it’s not anything that has to be hidden. It can be seen; it can be shown the light of day,” he remarks, reflecting on how Williams enriches his life. Albert now serves on the Board of Directors for TWTC, and he is happy to champion the group which showcases the beauty of Williams’ language, the abundance of his humor, and the bravery to showcase subjects which need to be explored.
TWTC is completing its second season this March and April with The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore starring Janet Shea, playing at the Sanctuary Cultural Arts Center (2525 Burgundy). The company is dedicated to presenting productions which are unique, entertaining, and challenging to its audiences, including less well-known plays by Williams. It engages dozens of local artists each year to present outstanding works for locals and tourists alike. Perhaps most importantly, TWTC strives to reach new audiences, especially those who have had little-to-no exposure to Williams—particularly young audiences. One high school student from Kenner expressed “I never knew Tennessee Williams was like this!” TWTC hopes to reach more students and new theatre-goers each season.

As it continues to grow and to preserve Williams’ enduring legacy, TWTC is honored to count Albert Carey among it supporters both in the audience and in his service to its mission. Perhaps there’s another young person out there who needs to hear Williams’ life-changing words.

Don't forget to grab your tickets to The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore by Tennessee Williams, starring Janet Shea, running March 23-April 2 at the Sanctuary Cultural Arts Center!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Dangerous Ladies (If They Need To Be)

Women Who Win in Williams

by Augustin J Correro

  In one of Tennessee Williams’ most famous plays, Maggie ponders the titular question: “What its the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?” She muses “…Just staying on it, I guess, as  long as she can…” The notion of survival as a kind of victory reoccurs in Williams’ plays. It’s a sometimes cynical, sometimes encouraging idea: when faced with a world that designates us all as fugitives in our own skins, to get out of bed each day and confront the ambivalent old universe takes courage and gumption. The victory is elevated when we overcome severe circumstances and insurmountable foes. Williams smashed his characters’ backs against walls which, like a booby trap in an arcane temple, inched closer and closer to the ledge of the abyss. His characters are made to chose between leaping into oblivion or clawing up the wall. No characters are faced with more unbeatable odds than the three women who headline the one acts in our current production, Tennessee Williams: Dangerous Birds (If Agitated). When it comes to uphill climbs, these women scale Everest. 
One such indomitable character is Miss Sylvia Sails in Sunburst, a retired actress who has recently suffered a stroke, and has holed herself up in a hotel room to lick her wounds. After a couple of days, the buzzards begin to circle. A pair of devious young crooks admit themselves into her suite one night and hold her captive. Their singular focus is the Sunburst Diamond on her finger, which they unhappily learn is stuck on the digit. As they plot ways to dismember Miss Sails without stirring suspicion, she allows them to succumb to their own foolishness, and stalls them until escape is possible. In the broadest strokes, Miss Sails overcomes her plight by letting the criminals wear themselves out. Even when immobilized, helpless, and endangered, she exhibits poise, patience, and cunning to avail herself of the situation.
The diamond on the finger could easily be compared to Williams’ own fortune and fame, which became the object of concern for multitudinous hangers-on later in his life. Perhaps what he was indicating in this text is that while he may have appeared to be easy pray for sycophantic ne’er-do-wells, he wasn’t a sitting duck. 
Another powerhouse femme fatale featured in Dangerous Birds is Queen May in The Pronoun “I”. This rarely staged piece for the lyric theatre looks nothing like most viewers’ perceptions of Williams’s theatre. It takes place centuries ago and centers on an aging, despised queen who is considered to be a maniacal despot, simply for having up-ended the patriarchy. She chooses her sexuality over the demands of others, and soon enough there are pitchforks and torches at the palace gates. She boldly, even ironically stares down her adversaries with a fatalistic wit, and through cunning and ruthlessness manages to come out on top (literally and figuratively). It’s a striking reversal, but one might wonder if it be so surprising if it were a male character using similar traits to outwit his opponents.
With Queen May as a surrogate, Williams took a sledgehammer to the wall of expectations, pulverizing the idea that he needed to stay inside of a pleasant, predictable cell. He did so in this lyric piece, tinkering with both style and subject. Without spoiling the play, the chameleon act of Queen May could also be a greater metaphor for Williams’ ability to adapt to new challenges and cleverly dodge critical slings and arrows.
The most mystifying and metaphorical of the three women our night of plays chronicles is the bedraggled showgirl known only as the Gnädiges Fräulein. The symbolism in the play named after the hapless heroine has a life of its own. On its surface, the cartoonish burlesque deals with two women named Polly and Molly as they get stoned on the porch, are harassed by a menacing bird, and molest and marvel at the Fräulein, who is a tenant at Molly’s guesthouse. The comedy of this piece is entirely situational, since the characters are not much changed by its conclusion. Instead it feels like a hamster wheel of cruelty and slapstick.
The symbolism can offer insight, but isn’t a necessity. Breaking the characters down to their most basic desires, we see that Molly, the landlady who sells standing room to her rooming house and whose business focuses on quantity over quality is an obvious allusion to Broadway producers. Polly is a society reporter, so she obviously represents the press. With a little bending of the imagination, it’s not hard to see that the vicious Cocalooney Birds stand for social rabble who wish to gobble up rotten bits and pick on easy targets—a cynical view of the uninformed public, perhaps; and the character named Indian Joe is a sort of American ideal who is interested in nothing and who nobody can keep interested for long. So where does that leave our champion, the Gnädiges Fräulein?
If the showgirl is dependent upon the landlady, and the landlady is dependent upon the press, and both press and landlady have a symbiotic/parasitic relationship with the rabble. The showgirl, then, must represent the artist. Simultaneously, everyone is obsessed in one way or another with the ideal that is Indian Joe, but nobody can draw a bead on him. If this all seems complicated and heady, that’s because it is—and completely unnecessary to one’s enjoyment of the slapstick tornado that is The Gnädiges Fräulein. The poop jokes and sight gags more than prop this play up—they elevate it to high low comedy interspersed with poetic brilliance. If one wants to delve deeper, the metaphor can be further plunged, of course—the showgirl’s signature trick featured catching a fish in her jaws, a trick that the landlady demands she repeat several times a day. It speaks to Williams’ frustration with being expected to crank out brilliant reproductions of earlier plays for a general audience, or else be treated as a washed-up pariah. The woman is pecked over by the bird, ignored by the Indian, and treated as a pitiful novelty by the press. She endures repeated beatings and indignities, but even to the last moment, her fierce spirit refuses to be extinguished.
Hers is the ultimate victory of a cat on a hot tin roof. She stays on, long beyond expectation and reason, because to give up is to be defeated. The Fräulein, like the Queen and Miss Sails, obliterate the odds and press on. They defy the ambivalent universe and claim their victory against relentless adversity. While they’re not as often celebrated as Blanche, Maggie, or Amanda, these three ladies featured in Dangerous Birds are the epitome of the fighting, unflagging women Tennessee Williams idolized.
      Whether you come for low-brow fun, lofty metaphor, or a night spent watching an incredibly talented cast, join us for Dangerous Birds (If Agitated), and watch these women of Williams kick some cosmic ass.

Dangerous Birds (If Agitated) Now Playing through Nov 20
Friday - Sunday 8pm at Phillips Bar Uptown (733 Maple at Cherokee)

Photo Credits: Bunny Love as the Gnädiges Fräulein, Mary Pauley as Miss Sylvia Sails, & Abby Botnick as Queen May by Ride Hamilton / Abby Botnick & Pearson Kunz by James Kelley