The Great Black Hope

Special Features   The Great Black Hope
 
A powerhouse cast stars in the first African-American production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Debbie Allen
Debbie Allen Photo by Christopher Voelker

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In the dark ages of the pre-Civil Rights 1950s, "Big Daddy" Pollitt's moss-dripping, magnolia-scented Mississippi manse was almost invisibly tended by Lacey and Sookey, two African-Americans who were souls of discretion, oblivious to the stereophonic sturm und drang going on around them as they dispensed meals and mint juleps. Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize winner of 1955, Cat on a Hot Roof, is one of those Southern civilizations gone with the wind. Yet it — like its Maggie the Cat — is alive!

The shock values of the play have long since dissipated with the times, while its power as an emotional entertainment has come to the fore — making it, after his iconic A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, Williams' most popular and produced work.

"What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?" the besotted Brick Pollitt asks early on of the clinging wife he's trying to taunt. "Just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can," replies Margaret, the original desperate housewife.

For the record, it's a Cat of five Broadway lives — the latest is playing the Broadhurst Theatre — and this is a Cat of another color. Producer Stephen C. Byrd has been dreaming of an all-black makeover most of his life — but in earnest for the past 12 years, negotiating with the Williams estate to approve Broadway's first African-American production of the play. "When I went to the estate," Byrd recalls, "they said the definitive Cat had already been done." [By "definitive," they meant the 1958 movie, which had been cast in the grand MGM manner with Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Jack Carson, Judith Anderson, Burl Ives and Madeleine Sherwood (the last two starred onstage in the original 1955 production).] "But I said, 'Why can't we do this?' An African American version is unique — there's real anticipation of a new interpretation."

A great side effect of this re-thought production is that it at last allows James Earl Jones to fill the shoes of Big Daddy, thunder-footing about the plantation, sound-blasting at the familial "mendacity" around him. The Dixie kingpin has just been discharged from the hospital for his 65th birthday — his terminal cancer kindly diagnosed as a "spastic colon" — so the stage is set for a long, redemptive night of tough love and truth-telling.

"Aren't you reminded of The Seagull?" Jones suggests with a eureka suddenness. "'The truth can kill you.' I started studying the role when I was in school at the American Theatre Wing. I'd seen Burl Ives do it — he brought to the role a lyricism he'd developed as a ballad singer — and I thought, 'That's how it should be done, but I can do that, too.'

"I always hoped it would happen, but I learned not to hanker for a role. That, sometimes, can drive it away — like a person you love too much and alienate."

The sheer big-ness of the role attracted Jones. "He's what King Lear would call 'an elemental man.' He's been all over the world, he's made millions of dollars, but he's still grounded in his nature. He's vulgar. He's irreligious, if not atheistic. He can be cruel."

His wife here is played by Phylicia Rashad, who matches his Tony-winning patriarchy (Fences) with her Tony-winning matriarchy (A Raisin in the Sun). It helps, too, that Big Mama is the real-life big sister of the play's director, Debbie Allen, who left Broadway dancing (as 1986's Tony-nominated Sweet Charity) and returns directing this red-meat, white-heat drama. It seems Rashad can be bossed by Li'l Sis: "We've done three films."

Four years ago, Anika Noni Rose was on Broadway, winning numerous awards (Tony included) as Tonya Pinkins' daughter in Caroline, or Change. Since then, she has glamorously grown up — thanks, in part, to the Dreamgirls film — and is entering her Elizabeth Taylor period: After Maggie the Cat, she will play Cleopatra to Christopher Plummer's Caesar for director Des McAnuff at the Stratford Festival Aug. 7–Nov. 9 and may boomerang back to Broadway in it ("Cleopatra was black, so they were waiting for me").

As for the all-black Cat, she says, "I couldn't ask for a better piece to come back in. It really does feel like coming home. Four years! It's time. It's about things happening when they're supposed to happen. If I had come up 15 years ago, it wouldn't be time for this."

An Oscar contender for "Hustle & Flow," making his Broadway debut as the broken and boozed-up Brick, Terrence Howard finds that the stage is familiar turf for him as well.

"I kinda grew up in my grandmother's dressing room," he says. "She was Minnie Gentry. She did Ain't Supposed To Die a Natural Death, All God's Chillun Got Wings, incredible plays. I'd fall asleep in her dressing room, listening to the audience and listening to her voice. When I heard the applause, I knew she was coming — the smell of that cigarette coming down the hall — the Benson & Hedges — and I knew then my life would never be the same. I didn't know I was going to be an actor, but here I am, and it feels like home."

In addition to a mellow backstory, Howard also brings a bit of Heaven to Broadway: His daughter, 10-year-old Heaven Howard, numbers among the calamitous herd of "no-neck monsters" (i.e., Maggie's nieces and nephews) roaming the Pollitt plantation.

Anika Noni Rose, Terrence Howard, James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad.
Anika Noni Rose, Terrence Howard, James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad.
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