Tennessee Williams Disrupts Sex and Class
by Gilad Barach
The African American Shakespeare Company’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” is simply a masterpiece. Tennessee Williams would applaud too. L. Peter Callender’s “Streetcar” goes beyond “Desire” to examine gender, alienation, class conflict, and sexual exploitation. We are captivated by Blanche’s wandering entrance and her tragic exit.
Director Callender offers a brilliant and painful lesson about listening respectfully to women. His “Streetcar” (1947) mixes brilliant acting, handfuls of unexpected laughter, a tablespoon of torment, and a cup of tragedy.
Callender’s vision of New Orleans’ French Quarter seethes with rising tension and emotional explosion. “Streetcar,” written in post-WWII America, embodies triumph and heroism, directing our attention to the working class, the ‘unsung’ heroes. The mostly African American cast masterfully gives new life to Williams’ attack on class privilege, challenging traditional U.S. prejudices and bullying.
At first, hospitable Stella Kowalski (sharp, witty Santoya Fields) and her sister, Southern Belle Blanche Dubois (stunning, magnetic Jemier Jenkins) reunite in joy. The sisters embrace, scold, and complement one another, reveling in their tumultuous history. Blanche’s self-centeredness puts us on guard—but the talented Jenkins also embraces Blanche’s humanity.
Costume Designer Rachael Heiman cleverly dresses Blanche in a radiant white dress, while Stella wears black with white polka dots. Stella’s dress expresses her humble, passive nature; while Blanche’s flashy, bright white gown draws all eyes.
Blanche intrigues with her obsessive lies and shrewd remarks: “I’m not going to be hypocritical, I’m going to be honestly critical.” Blanche is entirely consumed with appearance. She lies about absolutely everything, constantly rewriting history: “I tell them what ought to be true,” in order to preserve her image. Using Blanche’s neurotic allure, Jenkins draws us into her web.
Blanche’s harsh critiques enrage her tyrannical brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski (powerful, convincing Khary Moye). Blanche and Stanley insult each other. Their bitter stinging words haunt us, foreshadowing violence. The duo prowls the stage, circling the bed like lions.
Moye exudes raunchy masculinity. His dominating gait and his resistance to Blanche’s beauty make him a formidable opponent. When Stanley, in a drunken fit, hits pregnant Stella, his brutality enrages us. But, as he crawls, sobbing, begging for Stella to return, we can’t help but pity him, too.
The gentlemanly Mitch (charming Fred Pitts) also provokes both support and criticism. Pitts shatters the illusion that kindly Mitch can be flawless. Mitch changes from a gentle, patient guy to a crude, frustrated child, thanks to Pitts’ subtle alterations in posture and expression. Callender’s cast presents each frustrating character as human, contentious, and praiseworthy. AASC has assembled a forceful, impressive ensemble on board this “Streetcar.”
Rowdy neighbor Eunice (playful, booming Kim Saunders) urges Stella to reject Blanche’s accusations: “Don’t believe it! Life has to go on!” Social class, harassment, and gender intersect as Blanche’s accusatons are undermined by Stanley’s lies.
What truths do we allow ourselves to believe for our own comfort? What realities do we embrace to preserve our lives? This “Streetcar” goes to the end of line, and beyond–posing not one question, but all of them, powerfully.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams, directed by L. Peter Callender, at African American Shakespeare Company, Marines’ Memorial Theatre, San Francisco, through Sunday, March 18, 2018. Info: african-americanshakes.org
Cast: Nathaniel Andalis, Santoya Fields, Jarrett Holley, Janu Hunter, Jemier Jenkins, Khary Moye, Fred Pitts, Kim Saunders, and ShawnJ West.
Banner Photo: Khary Moye (Stanley), Jemier Jenkins (Blanche), and Santoya Fields (Stella). Photo: Lance Huntley