Theater
3:25 am
Sat April 21, 2012

Blair Underwood On Stanley, Stella And 'Streetcar'

Originally published on Sat April 21, 2012 7:46 am

There's a lot of juicy material for an actor in Tennessee Williams' landmark drama A Streetcar Named Desire. Sex, booze, class, betrayal — all set in the seething French Quarter of 1940s New Orleans.

A new Broadway revival has added another set of layers to the play: The multiracial production stars Blair Underwood in one of the most iconic roles in American theater — Stanley Kowalski.

Underwood, who is making his Broadway debut, says as an African-American man playing the role — written as a Polish-American — what he's doing is no different from living that experience.

"How I play Stanley is how I wake up every day as an African-American man," Underwood says. "I start with my heart, I start with my humanity, I start with my soul. 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."

The production makes some minor adjustments to adapt the play's culturally specific references, including obtaining permission from the Williams estate to omit the last name "Kowalski," since Underwood isn't Polish. The production also changed a reference to a restaurant called Galatoire's to reflect the relevant social realities for African-Americans.

"Galatoire's in the 1940s was a segregated restaurant," Underwood says, "so we changed that to a place called Dooky Chase, which was a famous restaurant then in the '40s and is still in existence today that was integrated."

A 'Gumbo' Of Cultures

Recently, when he traced his ancestry on an episode of NBC's Who Do You Think You Are? Underwood made a discovery about his own family that brought him closer to the story of Stanley, Stella and Blanche DuBois.

"I learned ... that my four-times great-grandfather Samuel Scott was a free person of color in the early 1800s Virginia South who owned 200 acres of land," Underwood says. "In this story, it is wholly consistent historically and accurately to have the DuBois sisters to be free people of color. Now, free people of color were more probably prominent in the New Orleans South in Louisiana, but it's fascinating because with an African-American cast, if you know the South, you know that it's authentic and historically accurate."

Underwood, who spent a month in New Orleans taping residents to learn the accent for the play, says the production works because Williams knew the French Quarter and represented it accurately.

"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 says this production is one in a long history of productions featuring actors of color that from the beginning were more than casting gimmicks.

"Tennessee Williams sanctioned many productions of color throughout the years," Underwood says, "and the earliest production of color with an African-American cast was 1955 in Los Angeles starring James Edwards. And Tennessee Williams sanctioned that then."

Playing The Brooding Brute

Underwood plays a character with a dual nature — he's often an electric, magnetic presence, but the play also shows his capacity for cruelty and abuse. In embodying that role, Underwood traces those behaviors to their roots.

"I see him very much as a man-child," Underwood says. "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."

In exhibiting that animalistic side, any actor playing Kowalski utters one of the most famous one-word cries from the heart in American theater — when he howls his wife's name at the sky.

"It's a precarious area to step into," Underwood says. "It is one of the most iconic moments not only on film, but on the Broadway stage. It is a cry from the heart ... as long as it's connected to that desperation and the depth of pain and loss in that moment."

And connected to fear, since it happens in the play when Stanley has beaten his pregnant wife, and she walks out on him.

"You can gather that's it's more than likely happened before," Underwood says, "and there's probably a conversation in the back story where she said, 'If it happens again, I'm leaving you,' so that heightens the stakes in terms of his desperate cry from the heart."

In the end, Underwood says he can understand Kowalski — and likes him.

"So much of his acting out," Underwood says, "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 says the production brings the audience into that dynamic with a set that's essentially one room separated by a curtain, so the audience sees and feels the dynamic shift when Blanche comes to live with Stella and Stanley.

"There is a certain inherent understanding of, 'I kinda see why he'd be upset,' " Underwood says. "And then again if it's portrayed right or well enough hopefully through the words that are spoken. ... Stanley says to Stella, 'We were happy. Weren't we happy together?' "

"That said," Underwood says, "I do love Stanley because I see his flaws, and I see how he wants to make it right."



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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Sure is a lot of juicy material for an actor in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" - sex, booze, class, betrayal, all set in the seething French Quarter of 1940s New Orleans. A new revival has added another set of layers to the play. A multiracial Broadway production of "Streetcar" will open on Broadway tomorrow night, starring Blair Underwood in one of the most iconic roles in American theater, Stanley Kowalski.

Blair Underwood joins us from NPR studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

BLAIR UNDERWOOD: Thank you, Scott. So great to talk with you.

SIMON: Quite a way to make your Broadway debut - as Stanley - isn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

UNDERWOOD: It is, indeed. Well, I started being onstage when I was 15 years old. And every opportunity I have, I get back to the theater. But never at this addressm on the Broadway stage.

SIMON: So how do you play Stanley as an African-American man in 1940s New Orleans?

UNDERWOOD: How I play Stanley is how I wake up every day, as an African-American man. I start with my heart. I start with my humanity. I start with my soul. The script 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.

There are very minor things. I mean, you mention Stanley Kowalski. We got the permission from the Tennessee Williams estate to just not use the last name Kowalski because obviously, I'm not Polish.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

UNDERWOOD: And then one other reference where Stanley and Stella go out to a restaurant called Galatoire's, in Tennessee Williams' script. Well, Galatoire's in the 1940s was a segregated restaurant. So we changed that to a place called Dooky Chase, which was a famous restaurant then in the '40s, and is still in existence today, that was integrated.

SIMON: How do you handle the divided nature in Stanley? On the one hand, he's electric and magnetic and lovable. On the other hand, he's abusive and even cruel.

UNDERWOOD: I see him very much as a man-child. The child, I see as 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY "A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE")

UNDERWOOD: (as Stanley) Not once did you pull the wool over this boy's eyes. You come in here, you sprinkle the place with powder and spray perfume, and cover the light bulb with a paper lantern. And lo and behold, the place has turned into Egypt and you are the queen of the Nile, sitting on your throne and swilling down my liquor...

It's exciting to put that cloak on every day, that cloak that is Stanley.

SIMON: At the heart of the story, of course, is Blanche DuBois...

UNDERWOOD: Yes.

SIMON: From Laurel, Mississippi; arrives to visit her sister in New Orleans. The DuBois were once people of means, but no more.

UNDERWOOD: Yes.

SIMON: And I was fascinated to read you kind of made a discovery in your own family history that brings you a little closer to this story.

UNDERWOOD: Yes, I'm so glad you asked that. I recently did a show for NBC, called "Who Do You Think You Are?" And it's a show where you trace your ancestors. And what I learned in my own family was that my four-times great-grandfather, Samuel Scott, was a free person of color in the early 1800s Virginia South who owned 200 acres of land. But in this story, it is wholly consistent to have the DuBois sisters be free people of color.

Now, free people of color were more - probably - prominent in the New Orleans South, in Louisiana. But it's fascinating because with an African-American cast, if you know the South, you know that it's authentic and historically accurate. We've just never seen it this way on Broadway. And I did want to mention, you know, Tennessee Williams sanctioned many productions of color throughout the years.

I mean, the earliest production of color, with an African-American cast, was 1955 in Los Angeles, starring James Edwards. And Tennessee Williams sanctioned that then. And he, and his estate later, have done just that all over the country for all of these years. But this happens to be the first time it's ever been done on Broadway.

SIMON: So he didn't think it was any kind of a casting gimmick. He thought it had...

UNDERWOOD: No.

SIMON: ...a resonance in the story.

UNDERWOOD: No. And that's what's exciting because he knew the French Quarter. If you know New Orleans, you know it's such a gumbo of all cultures - French, and the Spanish, and the African and, you know, that whole European influence, and the Caribbean influence. It's one of my favorite places on the planet.

SIMON: When you play Stanley, you have to utter what might be the most famous one-word cry from the heart in American theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE")

MARLON BRANDO: (as Stanley) Hey, Stella!

UNDERWOOD: It's a precarious area to step into because you're right - it is one of the most iconic moments not only in film but on the stage, on the Broadway stage. So it is the cry from the heart. And as long as it's connected to that desperation, and the depth of pain and loss in that moment - and fear because, you know, this happens right after he's beaten his wife, Stella, who is pregnant, and she walks out on him. And you can gather that's it's more than likely happened before. And there's probably a conversation in the back story where she said, if it happens again, I'm leaving you. So that heightens the stakes, in terms of his desperate cry from the heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY "A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE")

UNDERWOOD: (as Stanley) Stella! Stella!

DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA: (as Blanche DuBois) She ain't coming down so you quit, or you'll get the law on you!

UNDERWOOD: (as Stanley) Stella!

My job is to make it as honest and as grounded as possible, and the audience will bring what they bring to it. So you just have to do - you know, commit and let the chips - the comparison and then chips - fall where they may.

SIMON: When a performance is over at night, do you like Stanley?

UNDERWOOD: I do. I love this guy. You know, so much of his acting out is because of his happy life that he had with his wife, Stella, that is altered and obliterated when her sister - his sister-in-law - Blanche DuBois comes to live with them. So there is a certain, inherent understanding of well, I kind of see how he'd be upset. So that said, I do love Stanley because I see his flaws, and I see how he wants to make it right.

SIMON: Blair Underwood is Stanley in "Streetcar Named Desire." It opens tomorrow night at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York and is scheduled - the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway, and is scheduled to run through July 22nd.

Mr. Underwood, thanks so much.

UNDERWOOD: Oh Scott, it was my pleasure. Thank you for the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.