Marc H. Morial
“The landscape of any Tennessee Williams play is the human heart, and I have a cast of people with heart.” -Emily Mann, director of the new Broadway revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” with an all-Black cast.
Like Hollywood, Broadway has historically been reluctant to cast African Americans in mainstream classics, especially those originally created for White thespians. But, unlike “Tinseltown,” the “Great White Way” has moved much more forcefully in recent years to open up new avenues for Black actors.
The latest example is a new all-Black revival of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” set to open April 22 at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre. Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski first screamed the immortal line, “Hey Stella” in 1947 when “Streetcar” originally premiered on Broadway.
The other leading members of that original cast included Kim Hunter, as Stanley’s wife, Stella; Jessica Tandy as Stella’s delusional sister, Blanche DuBois; and Karl Malden as Blanche’s scorned suitor, Mitch. The story centers around the emotional unraveling of Blanche, a Southern belle hiding a tawdry past, who moves into Stanley and Stella’s New Orleans apartment causing all manner of conflict and tragedy.
In this first all-Black Broadway revival, Blair Underwood is cast as the brutish Stanley; Daphne Rubin-Vega plays his wife, Stella; Nicole Ari Parker is Blanche; and Wood Harris is cast as Mitch. Five-time Grammy winning jazz trumpeter, Terrence Blanchard has composed original music for the play.
The revival is being co-produced by Stephen Byrd, founder of Front Row Productions and his business partner, Alia Jones. Byrd and Jones are the African-American producers who brought the all-Black revival of another Tennessee Williams masterpiece, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” to Broadway in 2008. That play, which won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Revival of a Play, starred Terrence Howard, Anika Noni Rose, Phylicia Rashad and James Earl Jones.
From 1890 to 1910, most of the Blacks on Broadway were featured in African American minstrel shows, playing to all-White audiences. In the 1920s composers such as Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle popularized the Black Broadway musical. But it wasn’t until the 1935 production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess that African Americans really hit it big on Broadway. The momentum has continued to build.
In the 1970s we saw Broadway plays like Purlie, Raisin, Ain’t Misbehaven, and The Wiz. With the 80s came shows like Dreamgirls and a number of plays by the great August Wilson, including Fences and Jitney. And since the 90s productions such as Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, The Color Purple, Fela and Sister Act have attracted mainstream audiences.
While these productions have resulted in more work for Black actors, Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones are still a rarity as fulltime African American Broadway producers. Black superstar entertainers such as Alicia Keys (Stick Fly), Will Smith, Jay-Z and Jada Pinkett (Fela), Whoopi Goldberg (Sister Act) and Oprah Winfrey (The Color Purple) are making inroads as Broadway producers, but there is obviously room for many more.
We want to congratulate Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones and their award-winning director, Emily Mann, for bringing this new all-Black revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” to Broadway. We can’t wait to see the usually debonair Blair Underwood in a T-shirt screaming, “Hey Stella.”
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.