Sixty years after its Broadway debut with an all-white cast, Blair Underwood says he understands his character, Stanley, in A Streetcar Named Desire—but not because he’s an actor, because he is an African-American man.
“How I play Stanley is how I wake up every day as an African-American man,” Underwood said in a radio interview with NPR.
Golden Globe nominee Underwood makes his Broadway debut playing the riveting and animalistic Polish-American, Stanley, from the Tennessee Williams play.
“I start with my heart, I start with my humanity, I start with my soul.” Underwood said. “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.”
Emily Mann, the artistic director of the McCarter Theater in New Jersey, directed the Broadway production. To make the play realistic to the racial climate of the South in the 1940s, the production made adjustments to specific cultural references in the play, such as omitting Stanley’s polish last name, “Kowalski.”
To learn the accent of the French Quartet, Underwood spent a month in New Orleans, taping residents to accurately portray the language and accent of the city. Though the original actor, Marlon Brando, starred in the play at 23-years-old, at age 47 Underwood signals he can playing a brutish Stanley, conveying an impulsive animalistic sexuality.
The multicultural production of Williams’ play comes as no surprise to Underwood, who frequents New Orleans to sample its vast array of cultures. “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 said.
Unattainable love, loss of youth, and forgiveness are some of the themes Williams intertwines in A Streetcar Named Desire. To play the brute, Underwood suggested that you must understand why he exhibits certain behaviors.
“I see him very much as a man-child,” Underwood said. “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.”
Critics have noted that the revival of the Broadway play provides “eye candy” in the beauty of the cast, which includes Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche Du Bois, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Stella and Wood Harris as Mitch. Critics have called the ensemble “sturdy” and “excellent.” However, Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote, “This Streetcar is an exquisite snooze.”
Although the play has received mixed reviews, the all black ensemble is certain to bring large audiences to the theater, not only due to the star power of the cast but also the sexiness.
Underwood notes that the production allows for the audience to see the dynamic of Stanley and Stella in a new light. With an all-black ensemble and a simple set design, including a sheet to separate the stage into two rooms, the tension between Blanche and Stanley can be visually seen on stage, as the downward spiral begins with Blache’s arrival.
Underwood sees Stanley as a human with imperfections. Ultimately, he says he not only understands Stanley, but he also likes him.
“So much of his acting out 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 said. “I do love Stanley because I see his flaws, and I see how he wants to make it right.”