Multiracial Streetcar Named Desire Stirs Controversy on the Great White Way

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By Olympia Duhart

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on June 19, 2012.

At its core, A Streetcar Named Desire is a story about culture clash and self-deception.

The 1947 play by Tennessee Williams is driven by a conflict between those divided by social class, and by a stark lack of self-awareness among central characters regarding sexuality, alcoholism, domestic violence and mental illness.

In the play’s recent revival on Broadway, cultural differences and self-deception have also emerged among some critics who have expressed resentment about the multiracial cast members who offer their own portrayal of the dysfunctional New Orleans family depicted in the play. It is a challenge the veteran cast members are willing to confront directly.

“I am astounded that we are even having this conversation now,” said Blair Underwood, who is the first African-American man to star in a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. He plays the iconic role of Stanley. “This play has been done with a black cast since the 1950s. This is the first time we are doing it on Broadway. As an artist I want to be able to do it all.”

The New Yorker’s drama critic John Lahr set the tone last December when he called for “no more infernal all-black productions of Tennessee Williams plays unless we can have their equal in folly: all- white productions of August Wilson.” Talk about culture clash and self-deception.

“As we embark upon this conversation in the African-American artistic world, I think it is important to stress that this is not necessarily the majority of the white audience,” Underwood said. “This is just a faction. We have made tremendous strides in this country. While we have a lot of support for A Streetcar Named Desire, unfortunately, there is a small, vocal group concerned about the casting.”

Lahr and other critics of the talented multiracial Streetcar cast demonstrate that the clash between cultures remains — even in our so-called “post-racial” world. It also evinces that self-deception – particularly the persistent mythology of white exceptionalism — is as relevant today as it ever was.

Underwood has more than 25 years of acting experience. The award-winning actor has a distinguished list of accomplishments including multiple NAACP Image Awards, two Golden Globe nominations, and a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word. Moreover, his performance as Stanley in Streetcar is visceral and fearless. He is expertly matched with Broadway veteran Daphne Rubin-Vega, who delivers a moving performance as Stella. Audiences have consistently packed the house, and critics have been overwhelmingly positive.

Yet the “guardian elite” of the New York theater-world have challenged the Streetcar performance with the same claims that dogged the all-black cast of Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roofstaged in 2008.

“There is a faction of that liberal strain that says we will fight for civil rights; we will fight for your integration. Here is the caveat, just don’t marry our daughters,” Underwood said. “Doing A Streetcar Named Desire is akin to marrying their daughters, for some people. A Streetcar Named Desireis a literary masterpiece, considered by many to be The Holy Grail of American plays. I feel as an artist we all should have the right to do the works of any artist, regardless of race or culture.”

He’s absolutely right.