Letters: Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire could well have been of mixed-race heritage

How race plays out in our response to a Streetcar context.

Today The Herald published our response to Brian Beacom’s column (‘It’s hard to see Stanley Kowalski as anything but white‘, The Herald, August 31 2017). The unabridged letter is below:

Despite writing prior to viewing the actual show, and with absolutely no knowledge of our company’s creative approach, Mr Beacom decided to make several assumptions about our artistic decisions which are both inaccurate and unacceptable to us.

We wish to take this opportunity to address these assumptions.

Most significantly, Mr Beacom takes issue with our company’s decision to cast black actors in key roles and accuses us of “playing” with the “playwright’s period intentions” by doing so. He should note the following points.

Far from “playing with” the playwright’s “intentions”, our aim was to observe the author’s intentions accurately and truthfully in our work, recreating the world of the play as he saw it, and making its central concerns relevant to modern audiences.

Well before making any casting decisions, the company had already established that Williams supported the casting of black actors in his work. Indeed, he sanctioned, personally, several multi-racial productions of Streetcar.

Furthermore, Williams once took legal action to prevent a production of his play, The Glass Menagerie, being performed in a Washington theatre which did not admit black people. He wrote in the New York Times in 1947, the year that he published Streetcar:

Any future contract I make will contain a clause to keep the show out of Washington while this undemocratic practice (of audience segregation) continues.”

Therefore, we established beyond doubt that the author’s “intention” was to be inclusive and democratic. These principles were upheld in the casting decisions.

Mr Beacom states his own beliefs as if they were facts, however reality is often more subtle and complex. He writes:

Tennessee Williams’ play is…a world of stark segregation in which a black man would not be allowed to live in an apartment block with a white woman and certainly not in a house owned by a woman of colour.”

Yet, our research demonstrates that women in Louisiana were able to own property. In1855, Massachusetts passed the Married Women’s Property Act which allowed women to own and sell their own property, and by the end of the civil war, most states had a version of this law in place. Moreover, because of the legacy of French and Spanish rule in Louisiana, free people of colour possessed greater rights and freedoms there than those afforded to black people elsewhere, and were property owners. Inter-racial marriage was also legal in many states in America (in fact some states never had any legislation against it) by the time the play was written, beginning with Ohio, where the law against mixed race marriage was repealed in 1887.

Mr Beacom goes on to criticise our casting of black performers as “anachronistic”. However, Williams’ describes New Orleans in the play’s stage directions as:

“… a cosmopolitan city where there is a relatively warm and easy intermingling of the races”

By casting black actors, Rapture is presenting the city as Williams saw it, and heard it, with what he described as “brown hands” playing music in the bar off-stage. We are not “playing with the author’s period intentions” our vision is clearly and directly in line with the playwright’s.

When we cast the play, our focus was on casting people who were capable of bringing relevant qualities to the part, not on their ethnicity; we take it as a given that all human beings are capable of the full range of emotional experiences, whatever their heritage. The fact that Mr Beacom seems to require “explanations” for the presence of black actors on stage demonstrates an unfortunate narrowness of thought and a limiting lack of imagination.

Furthermore, Mr Beacom also takes issue with the central male character of the play, Stanley, being black because he is also Polish. However, the experience of being black is not exclusive to nationality. We have evidence of black soldiers in the Polish army in the 1920s and, in any case, given that Stanley was, as he states in the play, “born and raised”, in America, he may well have been of mixed race heritage, and Polish simply because one of his parents was a Polish immigrant.

Even more disturbingly, Mr Beacom suggests that because Stanley is Polish, that fact alone is enough for us to be able to understand his entire character. Mr Beacom states that Stanley’s “race and class informed his status” and then extrapolates that this defines “his attitudes to life and women”.

However, it is impossible to accept that Tennessee Williams, champion of the outsider, the dispossessed, the unfortunate, could conceivably have resorted to such crude racial stereotyping as a shorthand method of characterising his male protagonist. Stanley is a multi-layered, complex character: an Officer in the Engineers Corps and a war hero who won medals for bravery, returning, no doubt psychologically damaged by his experiences, to a home life where he would have experienced a loss of status, and poverty, and where he was the victim of constant casual and overt racism. He is certainly violent and aggressive towards others and such behavior is not excusable, but it is explicable within the internal logic of the play. However, for Mr Beacom to suggest that Stanley’s class and ethnicity are the only features which define him and drive his angry outbursts, is unacceptable.

Mr Beacom’s attack on the casting of black actors is not confined to our production, rather it permeates the piece, despite his observations being both unfounded and inaccurate. For example, he claims that Albee’s estate rejected “colour blind casting…given that it was set in the early Sixties in New England in middle class academia”. But there have been productions of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, sanctioned by Albee, and other productions approved by his estate, which have included black actors.

Mr Beacom generously states that he can accept “rainbow” casting in “panto” or “Shakespeare (which blends history and fantasy)”. Well, before we consign all of our wonderful black actors to the narrowness of performing in these two specific genres, it is perhaps important to remind Mr Beacom that all theatre, even when it is based on real events, is “fantasy”, that all theatre requires the “dramatic suspension of disbelief”, and therefore, by his own definition, it should be open to everyone. There is no reason why “historical” or other roles should be “closed off”, as he puts it, to black actors. Black people have been living in Britain since at least the 12th Century, and probably well before that (archeologists have found the remains of wealthy people of African descent in 4th Century Roman York) and are just as entitled to be a part of, and to represent, British culture as anyone else.

It is fascinating to note that Mr Beacom claims his “appreciation” of Noel Coward’s “Hayfever” last year was “diluted” by the presence of a black actor in this comedy of “English middle class convention”. Yet, in the same production, the presence of two Scottish actors speaking in their own accents, adding another rich layer to the text, but sounding not at all as Noel Coward might have imagined or intended, appears to have left him unfazed. He also comments that the chances of a member of the British upper class being black in the 1920s would have been “zero”. However, there are many examples of upper class black people in British history. For example, one of Queen Victoria’s Goddaughters, Sara Forbes Bonetta, a well known socialite, was black. The first generally acknowledged black British aristocrat was born in 1761. Black people cannot simply be written out of history to fulfil certain cultural stereotypes.

Before we began working on “Streetcar”, we researched it extensively. We considered: the role and ethnic mix of the Polish community in the USA; the history of Polish migration; the ethnic mix of the American military; the existence of ethnic segregation in the military; the role of the Engineer Corps (to which Stanley and Mitch both belonged) within the American military; the representation of ethnic minorities in popular culture in the USA from the 1940s onwards; the ethnic mix within the media from the 1940s onwards; the ethnic and cultural composition of New Orleans at the time the play was written; the history of Louisiana, including the French/Spanish influence on its laws and culture; the legal situation regarding, for example, property ownership and ethnicity; mixed race marriage laws (miscegenation laws) in the USA; the patriarchal nature of society in the USA in the 1940s; the social control of female sexuality; women’s rights; the understanding about, and treatment of, mental health issues at that time; as well as countless other aspects of the play and its background.

Unfortunately, Mr Beacom’s words appear ill-informed.

Tennessee Williams was a bold and fearless champion of those who found themselves, through no fault of their own, to be “outsiders” in society.  He created characters and plots which gave a voice to those who were excluded: because they were born into the underclasses of society; because they were shunned or rejected as a result of their mental illness; because they were discriminated against due to their gender, their sexuality or their ethnicity.  He was heroic, fearless and consistent in his support of the underdog. He believed that there were no “good” or “bad” people, just people.

However, his work is also driven by an overarching promotion of acceptance:  a fostering of compassion, forgiveness, understanding and tolerance, even for those who are flawed or damaged by life.  The pure notes of his lyrical language in the mouths of those who frequently have no voice enables their words to soar and to penetrate the hearts, minds and souls of audiences in clear, ringing tones which transcend the characters’ otherwise lowly status.

However, Williams’ strong social conscience also meant that he did not shy away from confronting the ugliness and brutality of bigotry, prejudice and hatred.

Neither will we.

The Cast, Crew and Creative Team of “A Streetcar Named Desire”, Rapture Theatre.

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A Streetcar Named Desire

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