Mississippi Mendacity: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Opens on Broadway

News   Mississippi Mendacity: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Opens on Broadway Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opens on Broadway March 6 with a cast of African-American performers — including the legendary James Earl Jones — biting into the Southern-fried family soap opera that won a Pulitzer Prize.
Cat star Anika Noni Rose.
Cat star Anika Noni Rose. Photo by Joan Marcus

Preview audiences at the Broadhurst Theatre since Feb. 12 have listened with fresh ears to Williams' poetic, profane, pained text that tells of the end of an era in the cotton-plantation family run by Big Daddy, played by Tony Award winner Jones (Fences, The Great White Hope).

Do certain elements in the story — sibling competition, family dynamics, the idea of legacy, male rule in the household, religion, virility, money — pop differently in a black context? Is it specific to the white-ruling 1955 Southern world, which it originally portrayed? (The 1955 drama, now in its fifth Broadway production, is, for this production, placed in a vaguely modern world, suggesting the last 15 years or so.) Or does this Debbie Allen-directed production prove that Williams is purely universal?

Williams usually prompts good discussion after the show, over drinks, and this Cat is no exception.

Big Daddy is dying of cancer, and his cotton-crop fortune is up for grabs; film actor Terrence Howard, making his Broadway debut as Brick, is the favored ex-jock son who is now a heap of booze and regret (and perhaps repressed homosexuality), unable to give his voracious wife, Maggie (Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose) a child. A betrayal leading to an exposed secret has poisoned their marriage.

Tony Award winner Phylicia Rashad is Big Mama, facing the loss of her man; Giancarlo Esposito is Gooper, the son whose greatest asset may be the children — also known as "no-neck monsters" — he and his wife, Mae (Lisa Arrindell-Anderson), have been able to produce. The company also includes Lou Myers as Rev. Tooker, Count Stovall as Doctor Baugh, Skye Jasmine Allen-McBean as Sonny, Marja Harmon as Sookey, Heaven Howard as Dixie, Marissa Chisolm as Trixie and Clark Jackson as Lacey with Bethany Butler, Robert Riley and Lynda Gravatt.

This is the first time an African-American cast appears in the Williams play on Broadway, although there is a regional-theatre precedent for the casting conceit. African-American actors appeared in at least one revival of the play — in 1999 at TheatreVirginia.

Allen previously stated, "I am thrilled to stand at the helm of this unique production as we navigate our way through Tennessee Williams' riveting and explosive American classic. Cat, said to be his favorite of his many plays, achieves a timeless coherence with its characters as they wrestle with the universal struggles of life, love, money, sex and death."

The Cat on a Hot Tin Roof design team includes Ray Klausen (sets), William H. Grant III (lights), John H. Shivers (sound), Jane Greenwood (costumes) and Charles G. LaPointe (hair). Production stage manager is Gwendolyn M. Gilliam.

Original music is by Andrew "Tex" Allen. Saxophone player is Gerald Hayes, who opens each act.

Cat is being presented by Front Row Productions and Stephen C. Byrd in association with Alia M. Jones.

Byrd stated, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has been revived on Broadway four times before; this production marks the first African-American production approved by the Williams estate for the Broadway stage. This revival of Cat is not only making Broadway history, it is making American theatre and black theatre history too!"

The strictly limited run has been extended, and tickets are on sale to June 15. Terrence Howard takes a leave from the show to make good on a Hollywood obligation, April 15-May 22. In his place will be the actor Boris Kodjoe ("Soul Food"). Howard will return May 23.

For tickets visit www.telecharge.com or by call (212) 239-6200. For more information visit www.Cat2008onBroadway.com.

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Director Allen, a respected director and choreographer, is widely known for her role as Lydia Grant in the hit TV series "Fame." She made her Broadway debut in the chorus of Purlie. She created the role of Beneatha in the Tony Award-winning musical Raisin, and for the 1979 revival of West Side Story she received the Drama Desk Award, as well as her first Tony Award nomination (she played Anita). Allen received her second Tony Award nomination in 1986 for her performance in the title role of Bob Fosse's Sweet Charity.

Tony Award winner Rose is a veteran of Caroline, or Change and Hollywood's "Dreamgirls." Howard is an Academy Award nominee whose work includes "Hustle & Flow" and "Crash." Rashad, widely known for TV's "Cosby," won a Tony for A Raisin in the Sun (the TV version of which air in February). Tony Award winner Jones is a theatre and film legend of Broadway's Fences and The Great White Hope, and voiced Darth Vader in "Star Wars," among many film projects. Esposito appeared in Broadway's Seesaw as a young actor and has acted for Spike Lee in "Do the Right Thing," "Mo' Better Blues," "School Daze" and "Malcolm X."

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Cat was last seen on Broadway during the 2003-04 season in a production that starred Ashley Judd, Jason Patric and Ned Beatty. Anthony Page directed.

A 1990 revival starred Kathleen Turner, Daniel Hugh Kelly and Charles Durning.

A 1974 revival starred Elizabeth Ashley, Keir Dullea and Fred Gwynne.

The original 1955 production starred Barbara Bel Geddes, Ben Gazzara and Burl Ives and was staged by Elia Kazan.

There is a precedent for an African-American take on Williams' Deep South-set classic soap opera about greed and lies. In 1999, TheatreVirginia staged such a production, with Tamara Tunie ("As the World Turns," Broadway's Julius Caesar) as Maggie. It was thought to be the first professional African-American-cast staging of the play. Kent Gash directed the Richmond, VA, production.

The idea of a Broadway African-American cast for the play about a wealthy but dysfunctional Southern family has been around for several years. Director Lloyd Richards (Fences) expressed a hope to stage the sex-and-lies-fraught play with James Earl Jones as Big Daddy, but a staging never materialized.

 

"A lot of people are going to think the show is rewritten (to fit this cast)," TheatreVirginia's George Black told Playbill.com in 1999, noting that Williams' scripted language is drenched in a Mississippi Delta cadence so associated with African-Americans.

Director Gash said at the time that the non-traditional casting would not be anachronistic: He said there were indeed rich, land-owning African-Americans in the South in the 1950s, the milieu of the drama.

"It's not my intent to change any of the language of the play," Gash said. "There certainly won't be 'rewrites.' All the issues of the play take on a different resonance in the African-American [context]. When Big Daddy says he got [rich] by 'working like a n----- in the field,' it will really be felt."

Artistic director Black did note, however, that a reference to leading-character Brick playing football at the University of Mississippi, a school not yet integrated in the 1950s, posed a challenge. Brick referred to "Old Miss" as "college."

In that 1999 staging, Rodney Scott Hudson played Big Daddy, Lynda Gravatt was Big Mama, Thomas Corey Robinson was Brick, Gail Grate (Public Theater's 1998 Pericles) was Mae and Grate's husband, Terry Alexander (Lincoln Center Theater's Streamers) was Gooper.

Terrence Howard, Phylicia Rashad and James Earl Jones in <i>Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.</i>
Terrence Howard, Phylicia Rashad and James Earl Jones in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Photo by Joan Marcus
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