I had already seen the movie version of this Tennessee Williams' play starring the late Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, many years ago. Yesterday I went to see it again on stage, at the Novello Theatre in London, and it was a totally different story. To start with it has an all-black cast directed by dancer, choreographer, producer and actress Debbie Allen and headed by none other than the great James Earl Jones alongside Adrian Lester, Phylicia Rashad and Sanaa Lathan. Then, theatre ambiance, actors’ chemistry and story treatment make all the difference. This excerpt from an interview by Debbie Allen tells a bit about it:
Q - Is this first ever all-black production of a Tennessee Williams play the start of a larger cultural project to reclaim the repertoire?
A - Maybe it is, but I'm just concentrating on this one. It started with a young African American Wall Street mogul, Stephen Byrd, who has acquired the rights to several Tennessee Wiliams plays for a multi-ethnic cast. His first idea was Streetcar ten years ago, and I got Denzel Washington to commit for Stanley Kowalski. But then it never happenned.
Q - So how did this happen?
A - In the meantime, in addition to running my dance academy in Los Angeles, I've done a lot of work in movies and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, and we've known for a long time that James Earl Jones wanted to play Big Daddy. I didn't audition him: you don't audition James Earl Jones. I met with him, and we went from there.
Q – Although there are no racialist remarks in the play beyond the odd ‘nigger’ and no overt racism, Tennessee William’s Deep South family on the cotton plantation is clearly white and church-going with red neck elements. How do you deal with this?
A – Black people often refer to each other as ‘nigger’, and there were certainly black landowners who kept black slaves. But we’ve moved the action gracefully, I hope, forward from the 1950s to the 1980s; there’s no mention of a particular time in the play apart from Big Daddy saying he got off a train in 1910, and we’ve changed that.
Q – So your Brick could more feasibly be a recent football star in the 1980s?
A – Yes. There were no black people in 1955 playing in the Super Bowl, or the Sugar Bowl, or anybody’s bowl. Lynchings still happened. Civil rights was burning across America. Moving the play forward doesn’t affect anything beyond allowing us to take a fresh look. There is a universality about Tennessee’s characters and their situations. I don’t know too many families who don’t have to deal with the challenges of alcoholism, or drugs addiction, or any large family where there’s no fighting over who’s in charge, who is going to inherit the kingdom.
Q - Is Williams a dramatist for all time?
A - You bet. All good theatre, all good dance, is about energy and life, and that's nowhere truer than in Tennessee Williams. All of his underlying themes are relevant today. Mendacity? Oh, my God. Where is the truth, and who is telling it? The whole world is dealing with this, in politics, religion and in the global economic crisis.
Then there is the music - just snippets of it here and there. The last one particularly caught my attention and I convinced myself that it was Miles Davis. But which one? I never heard it before... Then, on the way out I bought the play's soundtrack and it was by one Tex Allen that I never heard of before. Still I opened the CD looking for any mention to Miles - it had to be there somewhere! But it wasn't... Until I finally got to read Tex Allen's biography and found out that he worked early on with Gil Evans and his orchestra... So, there was Miles "in there" after all! It's called The Click and was composed by Tex (it also turns out that he is Debbie and Phylicia's brother - so, pretty much a family affair going on here) especially for this play (the snippet that I'm referring to and can be heard on its closing scene is the first part of the song before the "percussion jam").
The Click by Tex Allen
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