It means "white woods, like an orchard in spring — you can remember it by that, if you care to," but on April 22 A Streetcar Named Desire pulled into the Broadhurst with Broadway's first African-American Blanche DuBois. She was in a state of contained disarray, confused, disoriented, needing directions. "I'm looking for my sister, Stella DuBois," she says to a kind stranger. "I mean, Mrs. Stanley — "
"That's the party," the stranger shot back, cutting "Kowalski" off at the pass and leaving Tennessee Williams' classic play free for its first multi-racial rendition. Nicole Ari Parker is the faded Southern belle of the occasion, more on the cusp of decline than over-the-hill, teetering fragilely, but with a not entirely extinct sense of style. Anybody who's been up for the NAACP Image Award seven times running for her role on Showtime's "Soul Food" knows how to keep it together.
"Blanche is usually cast much more mature," she allowed. "It's a dream come true, for real. It's not just a bumper sticker. Dreams do come true. I would love to tell young actors and actresses: 'Don't give up.' I waited 20 years for this phone call."
All too aware of the eight Blanches who beat her to Broadway, she took pride in being the first of her race to play the part. "It's a personal feeling of gratitude and humility, just to be a part of history, but, at the end of the day, when you do Tennessee, race is the last thing you think about. The play demands you take a journey that's universal to being a human being. And, yes, I am an African-American woman who is making her debut as Blanche on Broadway after 65 years of this play being in existence, but what I really wanted to do was find the best way to serve this material. There was no interest to change it or distort it or make a political point. It was about restoring this play to its glory. The music of the French Quarter, the heat of the French Quarter, the possibility of being French Creole — nothing was out of sorts." At a recent Wednesday matinee, something was certainly out of sorts. No sooner had she strolled into her new home-away-from home than she accidentally laid claim to it. The front door, much traumatized by Stanley's slamming exits and entrances, refused to open, not for sister Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and not even for the testy lord of the manor (Blair Underwood). Parker had Rubin-Vega walk through the [invisible] wall of Eugene Lee's wrought-iron, open-air set. Then, struggling to keep the theatrical magic alive, she opened a window for Stanley to walk through. Talk about "meeting cute"! A regular handyman around the house, Stanley removed his T-shirt (to some audible swoons) and tied it to both sides of the door knob to prevent other catastrophes. The actors blithely plowed through all of the above.
Parker can now laugh about that stage malfunction: "The beauty of the theatre is that real life has to happen in real time, and we have to deal with it," she said. "We were all on our toes, and the audience was so generous and really supported us through that snafu. Who said it? 'There's no distraction, only potential inspiration.'"
Underwood has always had three great roles on his bucket list — Hamlet, Stanley and Walter Lee in A Raisin in the Sun— and now, finally, there's movement on that front: "I always thought I wouldn't necessarily have an opportunity to play Stanley Kowalski, he being Polish and all, but the fact that [lead producer] Stephen Byrd has been able to secure the rights to this production, as he did with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, made it a possibility. When I even thought there might be a possibility to do it, I jumped at the chance."
He has the hormone count for Stanley down pat, but rarely have we seen a meaner one. The actor has no problem at justifying his character's brutality. "Look what Blanche is doing to Stanley, look what she's doing to his life," he pointed out. "I'm a parent of three kids, and anybody who has children knows when that first child enters your life, a whole sense of nesting and protecting enters the picture.
"That's part of Stanley's dynamic, too. We don't talk a lot about it, but he has a child that's coming, and that whole Napoleonic code thing is serious business for him. If Belle Reve and the family insurance policies are going to help him provide for his family — he's a blue collar kind of guy — then he's going to go for it. For that to be taken away from him makes no sense at all, and he's hopping mad about that."
Did he think the marriage would last long after Blanche's cruel exit? It didn't in the movie, thanks to the censors of the time (1952). "In the movie, the ending was such a big issue with the Breen Office," Underwood remembered. "At the end Stella leaves him because they felt Stanley had to be punished. It's not in the play. That's not what Tennessee Williams wrote. Personally, I think the marriage would have lasted. It's highly dysfunctional, but, like many dysfunctional marriages, I think it would last."
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"It's a great piece," she insisted, "and Stella is such an undermined role. I think that she's just so mine-able. There's just so much stuff you can discover. Six months from now, I'll be waking up, 'Oh, that's what that is!' That's what so fantastic about this."
Wood Harris as Mitch, friend of Stanley and last chance of Blanche, thought in general the opening night went well. "I feel like what we had was in our muscle memory," he said. "I don't think we can go under a certain level so I generally feel pretty good, but I go in on myself pretty hard. I love the Mitch character, and I don't have to rape nobody! That's wonderful, right? It's a love story between Blanche and Mitch. That gets lost in the film interpretation, but the play is wonderful for that."
Matthew Saldivar, who plays, with Amelia Campbell, half of the warring couple upstairs, seemed content with his lot at the Copacabana after-party: "To be in a Tennessee Williams play on Broadway? I would have played the coffee pot."
As a Mexican-American, he adds to the production's multi-coloring, "but in this play, I'm as white as it gets. This is New Orleans, probably the most mixed city in America." His reward for playing one of Stanley's poker cronies is that he gets to utter the curtain line: "This game is seven-card stud." In a play that overflows with potent, timeless lines, it's one of the least remembered. "I can't think about that too much," Saldivar said. "I might have a nervous breakdown." "I want to be part of history" was Carmen de Lavillade's response, simple and to the point, for why she chose to take this multi-racial Streetcar ride — even as the fleeting presences of "flower lady" and "Mexican neighbor." Rarely has an urban stoop been more attractively decorated, and one suspects she had a hand in the spirited N'Orlens street-struttin' that she leads at the top of Act Two.
Another standout in that prancing parade is Aaron Clifton Moten as The Young Collector. ("Young. Young. Young.") Fresh out of Juilliard, he is making his first pass at Broadway. "I feel even more excited to be making my Broadway debut with guys like Blair Underwood, Wood Harris and Nicole Ari Parker [first-timers all]," he said. "I really was here to just be eye-candy for Nicole," he shrugged about his paper-boy bit. "I wore something tighter every day. She's a beautiful woman. Her eyes are gold. There's misconception. People think they're hazel or brown or light brown. They're gold! Gold eyes! Try and look at her closely."
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Her first order of business back at McCarter will be another Pulitzer Prize play: Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. "I haven't cast it yet," she admitted. "Edward and I decided to meet after I got this open. I have a feeling he didn't stay long tonight, did he?" Correct!
Others attending the opening included cultural icons Cicely Tyson and a baseball-capped Harry Belafonte; Tony winners Tonya Pinkins, Karen Ziemba and Adriane Lenox; "Lincoln Heights" actor Russell Hornsby with wife Denise; producers Stewart Lane and Bonnie Comley and their kids; Giancarlo Esposito, going from "Breaking Bad" to Brooklyn Borough President in a John Patrick Shanley play, Storefront Church in June at the renovated Atlantic Theatre; producer-actress Tamara Tunie with singer hubby Gregory Generet; Bess' Porgy, Norm Lewis; Joe Sirola; Wendell Pierce; Deion Sanders with Tracey Edmonds; Gregory W. Meeks; Alla Jones; Elsa Davis; Boris Kokjoe, the leading lady's husband's and Terrence Howard's much-used replacement in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; star of Broadway's nonrelated Race Richard Thomas with Georgiana Bischoff; director-choreographer Debbie Allen; Beau Bridges, enjoying a night off from [How To Succeed in] Business; Jocelyn Taylor; Frank Underwood Sr. and wife Marilyn; Jay Manuel; Shawn Carter Peterson; Other Desert Cities' patriarch Stacy Keach; composer Terence Blanchard with Robin Burgess; The Best Man handler Michael McKean with actress-wife Annette O'Toole; Michael C. Hall (a.k.a. "Dexter"); "Today Show" weatherman Al Roker with wife Deborah; Tony Plana and Steve Harris.