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There's a lot of juicy material for an actor in Tennessee Williams' landmark drama A Streetcar Named Desire. Sex, booze, class, betrayal — all set in the seething French Quarter of 1940s New Orleans.
A new Broadway revival has added another set of layers to the play: The multiracial production stars Blair Underwood in one of the most iconic roles in American theater — Stanley Kowalski.
Underwood, who is making his Broadway debut, says as an African-American man playing the role — written as a Polish-American — what he's doing is no different from living that experience.
"How I play Stanley is how I wake up every day as an African-American man," Underwood says. "I start with my heart, I start with my humanity, I start with my soul. The script and the book is exactly what Tennessee Williams wrote, and it's astounding how it resonates in a unique way coming from actors who have a certain cultural alignment or aesthetic."
The production makes some minor adjustments to adapt the play's culturally specific references, including obtaining permission from the Williams estate to omit the last name "Kowalski," since Underwood isn't Polish. The production also changed a reference to a restaurant called Galatoire's to reflect the relevant social realities for African-Americans.
"Galatoire's in the 1940s was a segregated restaurant," Underwood says, "so we changed that to a place called Dooky Chase, which was a famous restaurant then in the '40s and is still in existence today that was integrated."
A 'Gumbo' Of Cultures
Recently, when he traced his ancestry on an episode of NBC's Who Do You Think You Are? Underwood made a discovery about his own family that brought him closer to the story of Stanley, Stella and Blanche DuBois.
"I learned ... that my four-times great-grandfather Samuel Scott was a free person of color in the early 1800s Virginia South who owned 200 acres of land," Underwood says. "In this story, it is wholly consistent historically and accurately to have the DuBois sisters to be free people of color. Now, free people of color were more probably prominent in the New Orleans South in Louisiana, but it's fascinating because with an African-American cast, if you know the South, you know that it's authentic and historically accurate."
Underwood, who spent a month in New Orleans taping residents to learn the accent for the play, says the production works because Williams knew the French Quarter and represented it accurately.
"If you know New Orleans, you know it's such a gumbo of all cultures — French, and the Spanish, and the African, and the whole European influence, and the Caribbean influence — it's one of my favorite places on the planet."
Underwood says this production is one in a long history of productions featuring actors of color that from the beginning were more than casting gimmicks.
"Tennessee Williams sanctioned many productions of color throughout the years," Underwood says, "and the earliest production of color with an African-American cast was 1955 in Los Angeles starring James Edwards. And Tennessee Williams sanctioned that then."
Playing The Brooding Brute
Underwood plays a character with a dual nature — he's often an electric, magnetic presence, but the play also shows his capacity for cruelty and abuse. In embodying that role, Underwood traces those behaviors to their roots.
"I see him very much as a man-child," Underwood says. "The child I see is a very petulant, kind of spoiled brat who wants what he wants when he wants it and how he wants it. And the man side is the aspects and characteristics most people think of and point to, and that's the brutality and the animalistic side of him."
In exhibiting that animalistic side, any actor playing Kowalski utters one of the most famous one-word cries from the heart in American theater — when he howls his wife's name at the sky.
"It's a precarious area to step into," Underwood says. "It is one of the most iconic moments not only on film, but on the Broadway stage. It is a cry from the heart ... as long as it's connected to that desperation and the depth of pain and loss in that moment."
And connected to fear, since it happens in the play when Stanley has beaten his pregnant wife, and she walks out on him.
"You can gather that's it's more than likely happened before," Underwood says, "and there's probably a conversation in the back story where she said, 'If it happens again, I'm leaving you,' so that heightens the stakes in terms of his desperate cry from the heart."
In the end, Underwood says he can understand Kowalski — and likes him.
"So much of his acting out," Underwood says, "is because his happy life that he had with [Stella] is altered and obliterated when his sister-in-law ... comes to live with them."
Underwood says the production brings the audience into that dynamic with a set that's essentially one room separated by a curtain, so the audience sees and feels the dynamic shift when Blanche comes to live with Stella and Stanley.
"There is a certain inherent understanding of, 'I kinda see why he'd be upset,' " Underwood says. "And then again if it's portrayed right or well enough hopefully through the words that are spoken. ... Stanley says to Stella, 'We were happy. Weren't we happy together?' "
"That said," Underwood says, "I do love Stanley because I see his flaws, and I see how he wants to make it right."