Tuesday, January 03, 2012

A Brief History of John Lahr and All-Black Productions of American Classics

Terrence Howard & Anika Noni Rose in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

John Lahr, theater critic for The New Yorker, just posted a roundup of the Best Theater of the Year on that publication's Culture Desk blog.

He begins with a wish list for Santa:

Santa, baby, next year please: can we get Arthur Kopit’s brilliant “Discovery of America” on the boards? Will you deliver—I’ve been asking for years now—a few good sets of lyrics in musical shows which aren’t movie retreads and which carry appropriate intellectual weight? And no more infernal all-black productions of Tennessee Williams plays unless we can have their equal in folly: all-white productions of August Wilson. And, since I’ve been a good boy, could I get more bravery from producers and from playwrights to take the theatre beyond sexual politics to the soiled workings of the public realm? Is more thought, more visual excitement, more joy too much to ask?

It seemed strange to me that he would single out the race reversing of Williams' plays into his end of the year wrap-up for a year that didn't include a high profile all-black Tennessee Williams production. Although there is the upcoming Broadway-bound production of A Streetcar Named Desire with Blair Underwood and Daphne Rubin-Vega, which I guess he is trying to trip out of the gate.

Lahr didn't even review the 2008 Broadway revival of Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof , which starred James Earl Jones and other famous African American actors. Hilton Als covered the production for the Magazine, and wrote only a few sentences dealing with the color-blind casting, summing it up with: "Race plays as much or as little a role in this revival as you want it to." Ben Brantley in his New York Times review was even more dismissive of any problems the race reversal might present. And he pointed out that the director, Debbie Allen, had nudged the period feel of the production enough to leap frog it past the era of Jim Crow.

However, John Lahr did review Yale Rep's 2009 all-black staging of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman for the New Yorker. He opened that notice with black playwright August Wilson's 1996 condemnation of the "folly" of presenting just such a production.

Lahr based his criticism of the casting on the larger themes related to the time period in which the play is set:

Loman is a monument to envy and its hate-filled agitations—all pluck and no luck. His outraged bewilderment—“What’s the mystery?,” “What’s the secret?,” “What happened?”—is predicated on the notion that abundance is there for the taking. This sense of expectation and entitlement was simply not shared by African-Americans in 1949. “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity . . . that you were a worthless human being,” James Baldwin wrote in 1962, in an open letter to his nephew. “You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.” 

And the specific time period is apparently what also got Lahr's goat about that all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof production from the previous year.

On CUNY TV's Theater Talk, Lahr appeared with Elizabeth Ashley to discuss the production, which he admitted he had not seen, yet.

Here is his opening gambit concerning the casting (at about 17:00 into the video):   

The "mendacity" of the play...  Big Daddy, this is a man who has 28,000 acres of the most fertile land west of the Nile. Now, okay, those 28,000 acres of fertile delta land - that wealth - that was built on the backs of slavery.  That is the omnipresent, unspoken central sin under which this whole elaborate structure of society, manners, wealth has been built.  It's all been built to cut out, to block out, to not see...to actually alibi this unspoken, but omnipresent thing.  

His contention is that an all black production actually robs the play of this layer of meaning and that there is a trickle down effect.   Elizabeth Ashley actually argued for the production in a way that intrigued Lahr into promising he would see it.  Her point was that black family structures and white family structures in the deep South of that time were intertwined "psychologically" and mirrored each other in some respects.


Thomas Garvey said...

Well, this is getting a LITTLE more interesting than that terrible post on the New Yorker blog. I heard from gay (and yes, gay African-American) friends that the "all-black Cat" wasn't actually that good - Allen could do little more than direct traffic between star turns, and there was no serious investigation of Brick's homosexuality, which to me is a far more looming issue in "Cat" than the slave-based history of the family's wealth. And given that homosexuality is is often coded differently in African-American communities than in white communities, this counted as a lost opportunity.

Lahr may have a point, then, about specific productions with all-black casts. But does that therefore justify snickers about such casting in general? I don't think so. Indeed, to generalize from Elizabeth Ashley's comments, there's obviously potential thematic territory to be mined from an African-American take on Tennessee Williams. (And I think a similar argument can be made for Arthur Miller.) Whether or not such artistic achievement has occurred yet in the specific productions we've seen is, okay, an open question. But that doesn't mean that the idea itself isn't valid, just that so far it hasn't achieved full fruition. And on top of that, there's the simple issue that there are a lot of great actors out of there of every color and hue, and theatre allows you to savor individual performances both within AND without a production's overall concept. So all-black casts of the classics are also opening up opportunities for many actors and actresses they otherwise might not have had.

Art said...

He does seem unreasonably obsessed with this.

I agree with you. James Earl Jones is somebody I would be interested in seeing as Othello, Troy Maxson or Big Daddy.