All-Black Remakes Aren’t ‘Folly,’ But Arguing Against Them Is

May 15, 2012  |  

Truthfully, I could just post Blair Underwood’s profound response to the criticism the cast of the Broadway remake of a Streetcar Named Desire is receiving and be done because he so clearly pinpointed the underpinnings of the backlash, but since context is key, I figure I better provide some.

On April 22, a multi-racial production of Tennessee Williams’ classic, a Streetcar Named Desire, opened with Blair Underwood, Nicole Ari Parker, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Wood Harris. The piece was expected to run only until July 22 but stellar reviews have warranted another month of shows due to the positive response from people who have focused on the craft of the actors, rather than their color. Though Streetcar is not a story about race, the racial makeup of the reproduction has somewhat overshadowed the story they are telling, as one critic in particular made it his point to dismiss the play as mere foolishness.

At the end of 2011, before this production even opened, New Yorker writer John Lahr wrote a wish list of sorts of things he didn’t want to see in theater the coming year, and we can deduce from his words, that one of those things is this production. He wrote:

“And no more infernal all-black productions of Tennessee Williams plays unless we can have their equal in folly: all-white productions of August Wilson.”

It’s the age-old, if they can do it, we should be able to too, argument white people have used to fight black history month, the need for affirmative action, and any other policy, event, or situation that seeks to level the playing field among the races. What white people don’t realize when they make these silly comments is that they already can and usually are doing whatever it is we’re still trying to do, hence the push for whatever effort we’re vying for at the moment. That controversial sentiment continues to follow the film so much so that Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker have almost had to defend this production, and perhaps after being questioned on the matter one too many times, Blair decided to make the case for this play plain and simple, for those who want to understand it. He wrote on Facebook:

“Though 90% of the reviews have been positive…(we are, after all critiquing an art form & everyone is entitled to their own opinions), it is in the commentaries from the likes of John Lahr (theatre critic for The New Yorker magazine) where you realize that there are those who are not even remotely interested in reviewing or critiquing the work and/or artistry upon the stage. Mr. Lahr & other so-called “guardian Elite” of the New York theatre world, would rather take a position of condescension & dismissal when people of color have the “audacity” to take on the extraordinary, beautiful work of Tennessee Williams. Once you know your history and know that there was indeed a culture of people (in the 1700s), endemic to Louisiana called the “gens de colour libre,” or “free people of color,” and that these people owned plantations & some actually owned their own slaves, there is no basis to dismiss the backstory of our Dubois sisters who hail from their family owned plantation called Belle Reve; Or to dismiss the part of the story where Blanche Dubois pines for an oil millionaire called Shep Huntleigh. If these dismissive Nay Sayers knew their history, they would know that there were a number of black people that owned oil wells in the 30s & 40s:

These are three actual black millionaires in the deep south of the 1930s & 40s that serve as prototypes for Shep Huntleigh:

-Lee Wilder Thomas

-William Madison McDonald

-Joseph Jacob Simmons

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