Tamara Tunie, who spent eight years playing lawyer Jessica Griffin on CBS-TV's "As the World Turns," begins prowling the TheatreVirginia stage Jan. 6, 1999 as Maggie the Cat in what is thought to be the first professional African-American staging of the Tennessee Williams classic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Kent Gash, a rising African-American director with credits at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, stages the revival in Richmond, VA, Jan. 6-30. Official opening is Jan. 8, 1999.
The idea of an African-American cast for the 1955 Williams soaper 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 plans never materialized.
Gash, 38, and TheatreVirginia artistic director George Black told Playbill On-Line that, as far as they know, this is the first professional African-American casting of the Pulitzer Prize winner. "A lot of people are going to think the show is rewritten (to fit this cast)," said Black, noting that Williams' scripted language was drenched in a Mississippi Delta cadence so associated with African Americans.
Director Gash said 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 nigger 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 now refers to "Old Miss" as "college."
Black told Playbill On-Line Jan. 4 that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with an African-American cast is an opportunity to help develop a new audience for the theatre. African-American organizations, groups and media sponsors have been sought for the staging, and TheatreVirginia has arranged more "talkbacks" and university seminars than usual.
An in-house video documentary of the production's creative process, including its approach to non-traditional casting, will be shot for educational use, Black told Playbill On-Line.
The cast includes Rodney Scott Hudson (TV's "Marblehead Manor") as Big Daddy, Lynda Gravatt as Big Mama, Los Angeles actor Thomas Corey Robinson as Brick, Gail Grate (Public Theater's 1998 Pericles) as Mae and Grate's husband, Terry Alexander (Lincoln Center Theater's Streamers), as Gooper. The "no-neck monsters" (Gooper and Mae's kids) are played, alternately, by Avery Taylor Cheatham, Bryan C. Morgan, Kourtney Danielle pope, John T. Williams and Amanda Williams. Robert F. Chew is Dr. Baugh, Taalib-Deen is Rev. Tooker and Jamie Mann is the maid, Lacey.
Tunie's work has been seen on Broadway in Oh, Kay! and Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. She was Helen of Troy in the New York Shakespeare Festival's Troilus and Cressida in Central Park, and was the voice of the adult narrator, Eve, in the film, "Eve's Bayou."
Arena Stage in Washington, DC., has presented an African-American cast playing The Glass Menagerie, according to Black. He said there has been no contact with the Tennessee Williams estate about the Theatre Virginia Cat staging.
The play's sexuality issues -- particularly the idea of Brick's apparent homosexuality -- are made more pungent with an African-American context, Gash suggested. He said African-Americans respond to gay people differently than other communities do because of heightened sensitivity about such issues as religion, male leadership roles and procreation.
Designers for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are Alvin P. Perry (costumes), Terry Cermak (lighting) and Charlie Caldwell (set).
TheatreVirginia is located in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2800 Grove Ave., Richmond. Tickets are $16-$31. For information, call (804) 353-6100.
Free-lance director Gash will join the Alabama Shakespeare Festival as associate artistic director March 1, 1999 directing at least two mainstage shows in the ASF's September-to-August season in Montgomery, AL. He will also assist artistic director Kent Thompson with season selection, casting and new play development through the Southern Writers' Project.
Later this season, Gash will direct ASF's Troilus and Cressida, beginning performances May 28, 1999. It will continue in repertory through July 24.
Gash confirmed he will assist in the recruitment of African-American artists, craftpersons and administrators; help attract a larger audience for the theatre; and help establish ASF as an educational resource throughout the state and the nation. Gash will also teach in the University of Alabama/Alabama Shakespeare Festival Professional Theatre Training Programs.
He said he's especially excited about ASF's commitment to nurturing new writers, including African Americans.
On the much-debated subject of African Americans playing roles traditionally played by white folks, Gash said, "As an actor, you have to think all the time, 'I can play anything!'"
He added, "I think the idea that African Americans will only play roles that are ethno-centric" shows "a slavish dedication to naturalism and realism" that isn't right in a non-literal medium.
As an actor, Gash has performed in ASF stagings of Twelfth Night, Major Barbara, Miss Evers' Boys, Macbeth and Measure for Measure. In 1997, he directed an choreographed ASF's Five Guys Named Moe.
In Los Angeles in February, he directed Debbie Allen as Harriet Tubman in Harriet's Return at the Geffen Playhouse. There has been talk of a New York run for Harriet's Return, but nothing has been confirmed, Gash said.
Gash, a free-lance director based in New York, said he moved from acting to directing because, over the years, he had encountered directors who didn't like actors, or directors who didn't understand or couldn't articulate the actor's process.
Among scripts on his personal directorial wish-list are Brecht's Galileo, the John Guare musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, Angels in America and The Colored Museum. Gash staged Home Off-Broadway in 1997, and created musical staging for Primary Stages' Nasty Little Secrets. He has served on the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles.
ASF is the fifth largest Shakespeare festival in the world, based on audience attendance. In 1997-98, attendance for festival events topped 230,000, publicist Kay Green told Playbill On-Line.
About 300,000 visitors a year are drawn to Blount Cultural Park, the 250-acre spread where ASF is housed.
ASF's mandate is to present works by Shakespeare, commission and develop new plays, and educate students (both artists and theatregoers).
-- By Kenneth Jones