The Glass Colored Boy: Race and Theater in the Age of Obama
In recent years, American plays written for all-white casts have found new life in productions with all-black casts. Intended by their producers and directors to demonstrate the universality of their texts, these productions have in mind a project whereby the physical composition of the actors will articulate a heretofore unrealized meaning within a given text. In particular, audience members who are understood to share the important physical characteristics of the actors (in this case their skin color) are perceived as being rewarded with a new connection to a text that was previously reserved for an ostensibly all-white audience.
Two noteworthy examples of such productions include the off-Broadway all-black production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and the Broadway production of Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In the words of their directors and actors, these all-black productions intend to demonstrate the play’s universality for any race playing its roles, and they intend to do so without disarticulating Williams’s original textual intent. This act of re-imagining the text therefore relies upon a certain concept of pluralism in which the universal meaning inherent in the text will appear to transcend the particular boundaries of race through their all-black staging, and so their project is predicated upon the idea that where an audience of black theatergoers once saw a play and its meaning as exclusively relevant to white audiences, the all-black production will demonstrate the play’s universal meaning by demonstrating how it is equally relevant to black audiences.[i]
However, there is a problem with regard to the extent to which these productions universalize meaning for black audiences by enlisting black actors, most notably because the black actors who fill Williams’s roles are undermined by Williams’s veneration of a social structure that obviates any such universalism. The plays of Tennessee Williams, which invoke a reverential nostalgia for the Old South, are described in Williams’s own words as portraits of a Southern culture that for him was characterized by grace and elegance. Written into texts like The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are references to that racial hierarchy upon which the Old South is predicated, leaving the all-black productions, insofar as they aspire to replicate these plays’ textual integrity rather than repudiate it, forever subject to that system.
Before proceeding it should be noted that the aesthetic integrity of the performance is in no way compromised by the presence of an all-black cast. Steppenwolf’s all-black Glass Menagerie was highly reviewed and remains one of this author’s all-time favorite performances, in particular because of Shanesia Davis’s commanding performance as matriarch Amanda. Likewise, credit should be given to director Yasen Peyankov for his simple and austere staging, which allowed his cast to fill, quite comfortably, those roles from Williams’s text. What is at issue in this paper is the motivating principle of these productions’ use of an all-black cast. In what today has been referred to as “post-racial America” (a clear misnomer, if not altogether laughably ironic in the present political climate) and the “Age of Obama,” it is worth investigating what these productions do and how their producers and directors understand their project.
To begin, the universalizing agenda of these all-black productions is circumscribed by two beliefs: 1) Plays produced with all-white casts communicate particularized meanings to white audiences, and 2) Only by enlisting black actors will that meaning become accessible to black audiences who now see that material as meaningfully relevant.
On its surface this premise appears to have been successful, as Allen’s Broadway production of Cat reportedly played to 80% black audiences (Cavendish). But simply because a certain percentage of black theatergoers may have bought into the idea of an all-black cast as speaking more directly to them than a white one doesn’t amount to proof of either an inherent universalized meaning or a particularized one. (We haven’t even any approximate data, for example, concerning how many other plays these attendees typically attend or whether they were compelled by an admiration of Williams’s plays in general over the physical composition of its actors or any number of other possible factors.) This data only shows that, presumably since we don’t really know the audience’s motives, a putative portion or majority of that audience may believe that black actors will communicate a unique meaning either lost or unaddressed when white actors perform Williams’s roles. The rub, of course, is that belief is not necessarily commensurate with truth, and this particular belief produces some obvious complications for both Peyankov and Allen.
Consider that Peyankov’s and Allen’s (and ostensibly a good portion of that 80% of Allen’s black theatergoers) belief that people must first see “themselves” represented onstage for meaning to be communicated would seem to make meaning endlessly elusive. And that identity, for Peyankov, Allen, and their target audience is imagined as being expressed by an inherent physical property represented in this case by race. But extending this logic only a little further, Peyankov and Allen will soon find themselves obligated to produce Williams’s text with any numerous racial and ethnic body types in order to make that particular textual meaning, in Peyankov’s own words, “immediate” and “accessible” for the corresponding audience. We could therefore imagine Peyankov’s next production of Menagerie as comprised entirely of Asians, another of Arabs, Inuit, Latinos, Australian Aborigines and so on, thereafter pursuing productions with different national ethnic groups such as Peyankov’s own Bulgarians followed perhaps with Greeks, Italians, Lithuanians, etcetera.
The problem with these hypothetical productions, just as for the actual productions using an all-black cast, is that these productions would persist at the expense of Williams’s clear dedication to a Southern social structure in which the Wingfields could only be a white family descended from Southern aristocracy. And it is this structure, written into Williams’s text, that prevents both Peyankov and Allen from succeeding in their attempt to universalize their texts with all-black casts.
Consider that Steppenwolf Theater’s study guide/playbill for its all-black production of Tennessee Williams’s Menagerie describes the production in this way:
Steppenwolf’s production of The Glass Menagerie strives to universalize Tennessee William’s classic text. Using an all African-American cast demonstrates that the Wingfields’ story could be any family’s story—regardless of race, religion or geographical location. Too often, the phrase ‘American Dream’ conjures only one image of the archetypal American family, an image that is not broad, diverse nor comprehensive enough to include the many faces of today’s American family. (5)
But if Steppenwolf wishes to “universalize” Williams’s text, then it must perceive a particularism inherent in all previous productions of the play. And because they wish to illustrate that this could be “any family’s story” by way of its all-black cast, Steppenwolf alludes to an ostensibly white particularism that has heretofore excluded blacks.
Therefore, insofar as this production imagines that an all-black cast will undo that particularism and “demonstrate that the Wingfields’ story could be any family’s story,” Steppenwolf and Peyankov must also believe that Williams’s own racial particularism requires the sort of re-imagining that makes an all-black cast capable of communicating the text’s meaning to racially different audiences (5). Because this production is part of Steppenwolf’s young adult theater program, designed to cater to Chicago’s predominately black inner-city youth, Peyankov has in mind an audience of predominately black students who will find a greater connection to the text because of its all-black cast. In Peyankov’s own words, his production will make the text “something so immediate for our audience” and “the story universal and accessible” (10).
But because these productions wish to illustrate the universality of the original text, they must remain dedicated to the original textual meaning. In other words, if the original textual meaning is inherently universal and only requires all-black casts to demonstrate that universality, then any new productions must adhere to the original text and its original intent. The directors and producers of these all-black productions must therefore remain dedicated to this principle even when they make changes to the script in order to accommodate incongruities generated by an all-black cast, as will be explored below. However, rather than demonstrating the text’s proposed universality, those changes reflect a less than sincere dedication to these directors’ motivating principle, since even minimal changes to what are, in Williams’s plays, crucial racial references will mark an attempt to obfuscate Williams’s original meaning, thereby refuting that universalizing principle.
To stress this point further, it is worth considering Williams’s own words concerning his writing and his project. In an interview in 1957, Williams described himself as writing “out of love for the South … It is out of a regret for a South that no longer exists that I write of the forces that have destroyed it” (Davis 43). Interestingly, with regard to the North, Williams says “I don’t write about the North, because I feel nothing for it … because—so far as I know—they never had anything to lose, culturally,” whereas the South had “a culture that had grace, elegance … not a society based on money, as in the North. I write out of a regret for that” (43). However if the South is not a society “based on money, as in the North,” we know that it is instead a society based upon racial hierarchies that constitute the crux upon which Southern culture was predicated. And while we may argue that those racial hierarchies were masks for class hierarchies (see my essay on Django Unchained), the fact that Williams imagines the North to be devoid of a culture is odd, but his “regret” for the loss of the Southern culture, a regret that is clearly reflected in the character of Amanda, is odder still for what it reveals about the play’s meaning. In particular, the play’s grim conclusion, wherein Amanda and Laura remain huddled alone together against the blight of both Tom and Jim’s abandonment, seals the fate of extinction of that Southern culture that Williams has represented in Amanda and her attempt to secure its legacy through Laura.
Williams’s Menagerie is thus inherently resistant to universalizing intentions imposed upon it by outside forces like Steppenwolf and Peyankov, and this is especially true with respect to matters of race because of its Southern US Jim Crow setting and Williams’s lamentation for the dissolution of Southern institutions. While we may reasonably presume that Peyankov is not dedicated to racial hierarchies in the way that Williams’s text ultimately is, Peyankov is nonetheless dedicated to the idea of racial pluralism. This is the only way to understand his claim that his all-black production will “open an opportunity to make something so immediate for our audience, make the story universal and accessible” (Steppenwolf 10). Only by first accepting the existence of essential racial differences (the same principle that guided Southern culture and subsequently Williams’s “Southern” text) can the project of producing what has heretofore been a “white” play comprised of white characters now be re-imagined with an all-black production. In other words, only by first appropriating the inherent reality of Southern Jim Crow races can Peyankov’s project understand itself as undermining that white racial particularism and universalizing the text by expanding it include black racial particularism (i.e. expressing a racially pluralist meaning) in order to demonstrate that “the Wingfields’ story could be any family’s story” (5).
Before considering the problem of enlisting a Jim Crow model of race in a post-Jim Crow era (also explored in my essay on The Help), it should be stressed that this concept of racial pluralism is explicitly obviated by Williams’s text. Because Williams produced a text that valorizes an explicitly “Southern” culture, Williams correspondingly produced a text that valorizes its racial hierarchies, which is in direct opposition to a concept of racial pluralism. The resulting contradiction between Peyankov’s and Williams’s intent is inescapably ironic as the notably black Shanesia Davis playing the role of Amanda offers impassioned remarks on the passing of the great Old Southern traditions of white supremacy.[ii]
In Williams’s play it is clear that this South is threatened by the intrusion of Northern capitalism, a system that has made it unlikely that Laura, Amanda’s daughter, can expect to entertain those same “planters and sons of planters” that Amanda recalls so fondly from her own young womanhood (Williams, Glass 403). It is also clear that in Amanda’s youth, under the fading remnants of the old Southern system, she enjoyed the benefits of wealth whereas at the time of the play she and her family are struggling under financial duress. This is evident in Amanda’s references not only to her being courted by “some of the most prominent men on the Mississippi Delta” who would not likely marry far beneath their own station but also by Amanda’s reference to the fact that, “in the South we had so many servants” and that “sometimes … we had to send the nigger over to the parish to fetch the folding chairs” (442/403). That Amanda’s family had “nigger” servants is a clear indication of the prosperity she enjoyed under the old Southern system (since poor whites couldn’t afford this “luxury”), and it is one that stands in stark contrast to her present condition, working in a department store and reliant upon her son to help pay the electric bill.
The ensuing conflict in this play is thus predicated upon the loss of that Southern way of life through the continued incursion of a Northern one. Amanda, Laura, and Tom are caught amidst a changing world marked by the shift from a localized market economy represented by the sons of planters who were Amanda’s suitors in her youth and which she and her family once benefited from to a disparate Northern capitalism that is “long-distance” (Williams, Glass 401). The term “long-distance,” used as a vituperative epithet in the play, describes the family’s abandoning patriarch. “I married no planter!” she exclaims, “I married a man who worked for the telephone company … a telephone man who fell in love with long distance!” (Williams, Glass 442). That this last line is repeated twice in the play, once at the beginning by Tom and once near the end by Amanda, stresses the contrast between the South, associated with the particular and the local, and the North, associated with the universal and non-local “long distance” that replaced Williams’s Southern culture of “grace <and> elegance” (Davis 43). Amanda’s husband’s abandonment represents another mark of the dissolution of the Southern family at the hands of Northern capitalism that has taken him from his family in pursuit of better work, and both Amanda and Laura seem incapable of surviving, much less flourishing in the Northern capitalist system, making all or most of Amanda’s enmity for the North a product of its having thrust her into a position of poverty.
It’s worth asking why we should bemoan the loss of the old Southern traditions in particular, but when black actors play the role of fallen Southern gentility, this nostalgia becomes profoundly bizarre. At least when white actors play Williams’s roles, we may understand their nostalgia since they were once the beneficiaries of the Old South. When black actors occupy Williams’s roles, this nostalgia is altogether incomprehensible: Why, after all, should blacks first venerate and next bemoan the passing of a Southern tradition built upon its oppression of blacks?
Insofar as the play reflects an animus toward the North, it must also must also reflect an animus toward black liberty. Though strong de facto segregation remained a prominent feature of the Northern states during the Jim Crow era, the North at least represented a nascent attempt to counter the spread of legislated segregation. If Williams contends that he doesn’t write about the North “because—so far as I know—they never had anything to lose, culturally,” then the culture that the South had to lose was, at least in part, its system of racial hierarchy (Davis 43). Thus if its post-Reconstruction passing is to be lamented, the lament must be for the racial hierarchy which characterized the South—a hierarchy that, should it remain intact, would preserve Amanda’s status above that “colored boy/nigger/darky” (all terms used either in the original or revised performance texts) who used to fetch the chairs for her and her suitors.
In what Graham Sumner would famously describe as the irreducibility of folkways, he argued in his 1907 book Folkways that “stateways cannot change folkways” and that “legislation cannot make mores,” an argument endorsed by many Southerners who saw in this view a justification of their practices, especially with regard to racial apartheid (qtd. in Woodward 103). If Southern practices could be described not as expressions of legislative acts but folk customs inscribed upon the body as Sumner described them, then the North’s attempts to undo those practices were not merely unjust (changing such “folkways” would ultimately require changing Southern bodies) but altogether futile since one cannot change behaviors that are inscribed upon the body. People like the sociologist Franklin Henry Giddings, a proselyte of the famous philosopher of social Darwinism Herbert Spencer, and the psychologist William McDougall became prominent advocates of this ‘folkways’ argument because it benefited their own contention that folkways reject not just stateways but adjudication entirely.
Insofar as the folkways ethos presumes that behaviors and cultural practices arise out of a set of principles that are exclusive to the people who practice them, it is not just that one cannot argue for those practices but that one cannot argue against them. To argue against practices that are understood to be somehow inherent would make as much sense as arguing against one’s family—it’s not a choice but a matter of consequence that you belong to a particular family by birth. By the same token, cultural practices that are produced almost patrimonially, insofar as the South was often perceived on the model of a family or personified as a woman (a woman who is a mother of future generations of Southerners), being Southern, even insofar as it may be described by certain behaviors and practices, doesn’t exactly amount to a choice but rather an inheritance. With this understanding, federal laws restricting Southern traditions could thus be resisted in the South through an appeal to Sumner’s assessment of those laws’ inability to change an inherited, independent model of identity and behavior—i.e., the ‘folkways’ that distinguish the South in the same way that one’s family distinguishes one’s familial inheritance.
Preserving Southern particularism, as Williams is concerned with doing (or at least lamenting its dissolution), thus amounts to protecting Southern identity from Northern jurisdiction. Sumner’s argument, like Spencer’s, stresses that if the South’s customs and mores were a result of a conditioned predisposition, then laws would prove not only unjust but powerless to undo them. And if customs and mores were shaped by a conditioned or inherited predisposition and not laws as Gunner Myrdal would later contend in An American Dilemma, then Northern incursion wasn’t simply the imposition of its laws upon the South but the suppression and attempted eradication of a “Southern” identity, if not a Southern body altogether on the model of a putative genocide. And insofar as those particularized Southern customs and Williams’s veneration of them is written into the text of Menagerie, no production could ever “universalize” its inherently particularized text. To do so would require a different text, not a different cast.
In other words, no amount of manipulation can ever achieve either Peyankov’s vision of universalism or Allen’s vision of racial irrelevance in spite of the fact that Peyankov and Allen do, in some way, use a different text. Williams’s original 1945 Library Edition of Menagerie includes two references that would seemingly pose a problem for Peyankov, but Amanda’s references to the “nigger” and “darky” in this edition don’t appear in Peyankov’s production. This is because Steppenwolf Theater, like most theaters, instead enlist Williams’s Acting Edition of 1948 and published by the Dramatists Play Service. In the revised Acting Edition, Williams changed “nigger” and “darky” to “colored boy,” perhaps diminishing the racial epithet though in no way diminishing the racial signifier.
These changes appear in the first scene of the first act when Amanda says to her daughter as they finish eating, “You sit down. I’m going to be the colored boy <“darky” in the Library Edition> today and you’re going to be the lady,” and several lines later when she says, recalling her youth to Laura and Tom, “Why, sometimes there weren’t chairs enough to accommodate <the gentleman callers> and we had to send the colored boy <“nigger” in the Library Edition> over to the parish house to fetch the folding chairs” (Williams A.E. 13).
The Jim Crow setting of Menagerie makes Amanda’s account of the “colored boy/nigger/darky,” like the Pollitts’ black servants Lacey and Sookey in Cat, an indelible feature of the text and stresses Amanda’s status in contrast with that of the “colored boy/nigger/darky” by virtue of her whiteness. This therefore constitutes a crucial feature of the passing Southern culture that Amanda bemoans in the play because it marks a crucial departure from her status, even as a poor person, of being white versus being a “colored/ nigger/ darky.” Peyankov thus elects to change Amanda’s reference to the “colored boy/nigger/darky” to simply “the help.” By doing so Peyankov attempts to replace what was before a racial difference commensurate with Southern racial hierarchy with an occupational class difference, even though in Williams’s South, class differences were subsumed by racial differences.
On the one hand, it’s understandable why Peyankov would want to make this change, as it wouldn’t make much sense for a black family to refer to either their “nigger,” “darky,” or “colored boy” help. Removing these racial references thus reflects Peyankov’s attempt to remove race altogether and “universalize” the text to “make something so immediate for our audience”—an audience of mostly black and Latino inner-city high school students (Steppenwolf 10). But eliding references to what were, for Williams, crucial racial distinctions doesn’t exactly remove race from the text. Too, because Peyankov never claims to be doing anything other than Menagerie—i.e., not a different production or even a particularly revolutionized version of it, only a production with black actors that will, in Peyankov’s words, “follow Tennessee Williams’s direction as closely as possible”—it’s not like he can really escape the fact that Williams’s text, which relies so heavily on Amanda’s lament for the Old South, is also necessarily predicated upon a lament for the loss of those racial hierarchies (10).
Similar corrections appear in Allen’s all-black production of Williams’s Cat. Big Daddy’s estate in Cat, as Douglas Turner Ward points out, is “Mississippi in a particular time in history. Big Daddy exists because of living on the backs of people’s labor” (Simonson). Because that labor is referred to throughout the play with references to “a nigger in the fields,” “a nigger field-hand,” and Maggie’s family’s magnanimous freeing of their slaves “ten years before abolition,” it is clear that Williams’s labor is specifically American chattel slavery’s black labor, making an all-black production a somewhat difficult endeavor from the outset (Williams, Cat 923, 955). Because Allen’s production took care to “transport the play from the 1950s and the age of Jim Crow to a later, unspecified decade,” an awareness of that racial incongruity did not elude Allen just as it did not elude Peyankov (Brantley). Yet even by eliding these racial references in an attempt to avoid referring to any system of racial hierarchy, Allen’s production cannot overcome the context of the play’s drama—specifically the passing on of that “plantation home in the Mississippi Delta” (Williams, Cat 880). And while Allen may contend that for her production “the idea of all black really isn’t an issue,” her all-black cast cannot not be an issue, especially when such directorial contortions are enlisted in an attempt to achieve an all-black production devoid of racial incongruities (Simonson).
For its recent London staging, Adrian Lester, who played the role of Brick in Allen’s Cat, echoed Allen’s sentiments in an interview with The Telegraph, saying that her all-black production is “an opportunity to see the play’s universality” because “there are references to color throughout the play, but it’s only through a twist like <an all-black casting> that you see that those references aren’t all that important” (qtd. in Cavendish). Lester comes closer to making a better point than Allen (a point that will be explained below), but because references to color difference were essential features of the South of which Williams writes and are embedded in the structure of his text, it’s hard to see how such references aren’t an indispensible part of the play when Big Daddy wouldn’t and couldn’t exist without them. Furthermore, it’s hard to see how they aren’t important if Allen must take pains to remove them in order to maintain consistency among her all-black production.
What Lester and Allen are really describing, then, is not a play or a production in which this racial system is unimportant. Even if Allen’s production has changed the time setting for the play, it still necessarily retains Big Daddy’s plantation-owning and, though concealed in Allen’s production (her actors never refer to “nigger” field hands), his slave-owning history. Insofar as Allen’s desire is not to change Williams’s text or meaning but rather to, at least in Lester’s words, “universalize” that meaning, she cannot, as it were, have it both ways. If race were truly not important, Allen’s black actors might as well refer to those “nigger field hands” with impunity, comfortable in the knowledge that “those references aren’t all that important.” But Allen’s actors do not speak these lines, and Lester wants us to believe that those lines, even when not spoken, are unimportant precisely because black actors are playing the roles.
Of course the reason that Peyankov and Allen excise these racial references is not because they believe that race is unimportant but because they believe that race is important. These script changes illustrate the impossibility of staging a Williams play without race because plays like Menagerie and Cat are dedicated to a Southern tradition that Williams consistently venerates throughout his writing. His plays venerate a Southern tradition that relies upon racial hierarchies predicated upon racial difference and not racial universality or even racial plurality. Instead of universalizing an already particularized text, then, the best that such a production can hope to achieve is an illustration of the preposterousness of the racial particularity that underpinned the Southern racial system. And this is in part what Peyankov’s all-black production does, albeit unintentionally.
After all, what sense can it make for a black family to speak so flatteringly of the Old South, as Amanda does, even with the specific racial references removed? The fact that in Peyankov’s production a black family does precisely this should turn that absurdity into an opportunity to illustrate the arbitrariness and constructedness of racial hierarchies, not universalize them in the interest of reinforcing their saliency. That a black family should occupy the uppermost tier in a system of racial hierarchies is only absurd given the actual history of the US, but there is nothing in and of blackness itself that could ever preclude a racial hierarchy in which black superiority and white inferiority were the historical reality.
The opportunity inherent in Peyankov’s production, then, is to have illustrated how racial hierarchies do not constitute a marker of fundamental difference independent of the socially constructed rules of the hierarchy. If Shanesia Davis’s “colored boy/nigger/darky” lines had remained the same, Peyankov’s production would have imagined a world as if there had never been Jim Crow, a world wherein blacks could have been in Amanda’s position. This would thereby have illustrated the fallacy of racial distinctions altogether, since racial distinctions have always only ever been socially constructed distinctions and that under Jim Crow apartheid prevented one socially constructed group from inheriting the Wingfields’ wealthy plantation-owning past. And yet contrary to Peyankov’s motivating intent, a production that questioned the legitimacy of racial distinctions would not have succeeded in illustrating the accessibility of the American dream in the world of Williams’s and Amanda’s South, since that dream in Menagerie is really predicated upon preserving a system of hierarchies and oppression. That this racial exploitation might just as easily have been one of blacks over whites, imagined in Peyankov’s production, doesn’t make it any less a system of oppression and exclusion, and so Peyankov’s all-black production with an unadulterated text would have only imagined a hierarchy in which the white/black roles were reversed.
If the original lines of Williams’s text had been preserved, Peyankov and Allen’s all-black productions would now make these plays’ references to “nigger” field hands and “colored boy/nigger/darky” servants and former slaves referents only to the object of that society’s excluded and exploited group, however the parameters of that group may have been circumscribed in the re-imagined setting. That for Williams’s (and history’s) South this group was Jim Crow’s blacks doesn’t mean that for Peyankov’s or Allen’s productions, which aim to maintain the textual meaning while universalizing it, that these references spoken by the people who were the historical referent must remain the referent in the contemporary production. In fact, because this contradiction would make these utterances relatively incomprehensible, the referent could only be understood as something else, as referring to some other group. And this group, as odd as it may seem (which should be the point), would ostensibly be white people. The universality that thus emerges would be one in which the all-black cast illustrates the immateriality of race and its signifiers by demonstrating its arbitrariness in the re-imagined historical account. No longer an essentialized other (no longer predicated upon the mistaken premise of essentialized races), race becomes an inescapable social construct devoid of any meaningful relevance beyond the parameters of its defining context—i.e., the historical apartheid of black exclusion and exploitation under Jim Crow or (what should be) the putative apartheid of white exclusion and exploitation imagined in Peyankov’s and Allen’s reversal of Williams’s Southern roles.
But rather than repudiate them, Peyankov and Allen’s productions appeal to the races defined by that Southern apartheid system on the presumption of their inherent reality because the impetus for producing a play with an all-black cast in order to communicate to an audience of black students today imagines that races, and in particular the US construction of races under Jim Crow apartheid, yet exist today. In other words, while these productions must recognize that Jim Crow no longer exists, they yet contend that its races do. And when an all-black production is imagined as “making something so immediate for our audience” by using black actors to appeal to a predominately black audience, they reinforce the particularism that it claimed it would universalize by enlisting the particularizing standards of Jim Crow’s races. In order to contend that an audience of black students born in the 1990s will identify with black actors, the production must appeal to that history of marginalization by recapitulating the very racist social construct it claims to want to refute.
To better understand this point, imagine if there had never been a racial hierarchy that discriminated against socially constructed racial differences. In such a world, a production with an all-black cast would appear as distinct and groundbreaking as a production with an all-blond or all-redheaded or even an all-tall cast—which is to say, not so distinct or groundbreaking at all and perhaps only a mere coincidence that might even go unnoticed. Instead Peyankov’s production would be just another production of a play that happens to have a cast with a particular set of shared physical features. The point being that without an appeal to America’s segregationist past, Peyankov’s and Allen’s casts’ principal similarity (their skin color) might not even be instantly recognizable. In fact, it is only as a result of America’s particular system of racial categorization that one can call Peyankov’s cast “all-black” as opposed to “mixed” in the first place.
A visiting audience member from Puerto Rico, for example, might be confused by actor Anthony Fleming III’s casting as Jim in what Steppenwolf Theater bills as an “all-black” cast. This actor’s comparatively light skin color might, in Puerto Rico, identify him not as black but rather “colored” (a distinct category apart from black in that region) or possibly even white. In other contexts the same could even be true of actress Nambi Kelley, who played Laura, and quite possibly Shanesia Davis, who played the role of Amanda. In fact, considering another country’s racial system, perhaps Brazil, these actors’ billing in an “all-black” cast would become even more problematic. In Brazil, where your race is more a matter of your class and education than some concept of ancestry or appearance, the Wingfields at the time of the play might occupy a social status more identifiable with a ‘black’ racial classification, but Amanda’s past would clearly be ‘white’ because of her upper class status. This, because in Brazil’s system, “classes exist, but definite race groups do not” and “as people climb the class ladder by educational and economic success, their racial designations often change” (Davis, Who is Black 102, 101). Amanda’s and her family’s race would have correspondingly changed with their class, leaving the Wingfields’ race largely contingent upon their social class rather than their ancestry or physical appearance.
The point is that Peyankov’s all-“black” production relies upon a specifically US racial classification that makes both the more lighter-skinned Nambi Kelley and Anthony Fleming III black, and that US system of racial difference is contingent upon one’s ancestry, which can be invisible but still present in the form of the “one drop rule.” Jim Crow’s racial classification system afforded the mechanism by which to subjugate and systematically oppress blacks (while also preventing collusion between poor whites and blacks who shared the same class and the same economic interests) for the better part of one hundred years following the abolition of slavery, effectively preventing blacks from accessing that concept of the American dream that Peyankov believes is the central focus of Menagerie. It is this systematic exclusion that provides Steppenwolf and Peyankov and their audience the basis upon which to perceive an all-black production of an early twentieth century, Jim Crow-era play as a means of “redefine<ing> the American Dream” (Steppenwolf 5).
In this way, Steppenwolf Theater and director Yasen Peyankov become less committed to a genuinely universalist appeal than to a particularism that undermines their stated intention by reifying the racial precepts of Jim Crow’s races. Peyankov’s universalism, intended to encompass the racial differences that Williams’s play and its previously all-white productions have historically omitted, is instead another way of particularizing the play by imagining that the material is only made relevant to an audience of predominately black students when they see black actors occupying its roles—not that it wouldn’t be equally incorrect to say that white audiences only see the relevance when they see a white cast in Williams’s roles.
In fact, it’s worth saying that there are no more “white” or “black” audience members altogether. If American race was a product of a racist apartheid system that first produced races (which it was), and if there are no inherent biological races (which there aren’t, as the world’s geneticists have demonstrated), then race can only survive if the precepts of that former racial system somehow survive. There are audience members with different physical characteristics, to be sure, but insofar as race is a social construct defined in this case by Jim Crow, then if there were no more Jim Crow, then there must correspondingly be no more races.
But Allen and Peyankov’s productions preserve the tenets of Jim Crow because their productions become projects designed to ensure that racial difference doesn’t go away, projects designed to preserve race by preserving the fundamental tenets of that Jim Crow model since there are no “all-black” productions without it. What’s more, because they must take care to conceal certain references to that Jim Crow system, they inadvertently betray the fact that that system accounts for race in the first place—including those omitted lines and their racial referents and letting Jim Crow’s “black” actors speak them would undermine the entire apparatus of race and illustrate its inherent fallacy, which would in turn undermine the impetus for having produced the all-black play designed to appeal to a putative audience of “black” theatergoers that are only black by virtue of that inherently fallacious system. In other words, if Jim Crow accounts for race, then a world in which there is no more Jim Crow means that there are no more races, and so Peyankov’s and Allen’s concealment thus only preserves the features of that system by obviating that inconsistency in an attempt to prove, however wrongly in light of the history to which they consequently appeal, that “the Wingfields’ story could be any family’s story” (Steppenwolf 5).
Allen and Peyankov thus become like Laura, tending a menagerie of glass representations, some of which, like the unicorn, have become “extinct in the modern world” (Williams, Glass 455). And as Laura informs Jim and us, “Glass is something you have to take good care of … Oh, be careful—if you breathe, it breaks!” (455). Certainly one must be careful, and Peyankov and Allen were, to protect the fragile artifice of race. Out of dedication to this project of preservation, Peyankov and Allen omit the references that, like a breath of air, would have dissolved the efficacy of race in their all-black productions.
Like Laura’s glass unicorn, if we’re not careful, race is something that we might mishandle, only to discover that it’s just another fantasy. Like Maggie the Cat, desperate to see the familial lineage continue and pass to the next generation, the age of Obama, rather than pursuing an interest in the ultimate rejection or dissolution of race, seems instead determined to preserve it. But models of race that are at once socially constructed and also predicated upon the belief that race is indelibly inscribed upon the body betray an intrinsic fallacy, especially with regard to the project of preserving them: if race is something that you have and cannot escape (i.e., if race truly is inscribed upon the body), it cannot require preserving. There is not, for example, any need to preserve the identity of your blood type—you simply have it regardless of whether you believe it or not. However, because there is no racial biology inherent in “blood” (read DNA) and because the inherent fallacy of Jim Crow’s “one drop rule” precipitated the abolishment of Jim Crow, preserving race in America must be committed to preserving a socially constructed model of race embodied in that past of Jim Crow apartheid.
Just as it doesn’t make sense for a black family to bemoan the loss of a Southern way of life built upon the oppression of blacks, it makes just as little sense, then, to preserve a model of race produced by that system. Jim Crow apartheid was, after all, predicated upon first the designation of blackness and then the suppression and exploitation of it. By eliding the two crucial references to the “colored boy/nigger/darky” in his production of Menagerie, Peyankov only masks the old South’s racialized class system and left the idea of racial identity not only intact, but necessary to support the claim that African American actors will “make something so immediate for our audience”—an audience of ostensibly black students—“<and> make the story universal and accessible” (Steppenwolf 10). But it makes little sense to invoke the idea of universalism here and immediately follow it with the imperative to use black actors to articulate that universalism to an audience of black students. If that “universal” message is only accessible through identification with racial identities, it’s hard to see how this translates into a universal appeal. Thus the intention is not to imagine a world as though Jim Crow never was (a truly universalist approach), but to insist that its identity marker still exists (a reification of racial particularism). What’s more, one sees how much care must be taken to preserve and maintain that structure, like Laura’s glass unicorn, when the director must take care to erase all references that might undermine this enterprise of race reification.
While the all-black production doesn’t equal the recapitulation of white supremacy, since it is clearly aimed at repudiating it, the fact that Williams endorses white supremacy insofar as he reveres the society and culture produced by it, the all-black productions must reinforce that system’s production of race. And if productions like Peyankov’s and Allen’s weren’t similarly indebted to Williams’s Southern production of racial identity, they wouldn’t have taken the time to conceal the contradictions that would make it, and Williams’s text, look unintelligible by way of their all-black casts. But as noted above, that unintelligibility, by first enlisting that impetus for producing the all-black play (the history of American apartheid) and thereafter undermining its intelligibility through the ironies that would have followed, would have provided a much different theatergoing experience. And because this would have dismantled rather than reinforced the precepts of that racial particularism, such a production would have served their universalizing intention far better. Recapitulating Williams’s dedication to racial hierarchies, be they white or black, is the production of particularism through race, not the eradication of it through a universalism disinterested in, if not altogether prohibitive of, race.
Brantley, Ben. “Yet Another Life for Maggie the Cat.” The New York Times 7th March 2008.
Cavendish, Dominic. “Adrian Lester Interview.” The Telegraph 25 Nov. 2009
Davis, F. James. Who is Black? One Nation’s Definition. Pennsylvania State University: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001
Davis, Louise. “That Baby Doll Man: Part I.” Devlin, Albert J. Conversations with Tennessee Williams. Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi, 1986. 43-49.
Rooney, David. “Review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Variety 6th March 2008.
Simonson, Robert. “Once Pure White, American Classics Cross a Color Line.” New York Times 24th February 2008.
Steppenwolf Theater Company. “Study Guide: Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.” Chicago, IL: Steppenwolf Theater, 2008.
Williams, Tennessee. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Williams, Tennessee. Tennessee Williams: Plays 1937- 1955 New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2000. 873-1005.
— “The Glass Menagerie.” Williams, Tennessee. Tennessee Williams: Plays 1937-1955. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2000. 393-465.
— The Glass Menagerie. Dramatists Play Service Inc., 1945, 1973, 1976. 24
Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.
[i] It should be noted here that the universalizing principle of all-black productions is not predicated upon proving that their casts are equally capable of performing and executing traditionally white roles from classic American plays, since only the most trenchant racist could be expected to believe otherwise and such racists likely don’t constitute a significant portion of any theatergoing audience. Therefore such a project would not garner much attention or interest today, as the motivation to prove that black actors are equally capable as white ones could only be impelled by the perceived need for proof, thereby implying doubt on behalf of the producers and their audience. We can therefore reasonably assert that this is not these productions’ guiding principle.
Of course there is a difference between all-black productions of Williams’s plays staged today versus those in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, of which there is some history. This difference is marked by the fact that all-black productions staged during the period of Jim Crow apartheid were revolutionary because they demonstrated that blacks could equally perform roles for whites (in direct contest to the prevailing racism of the day). They also echoed Ralph Ellison’s argument in his essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” since these productions would have demonstrated, at a crucial moment in American history, that blacks were and had always been attempting to participate in American culture as indistinguishable equals even as they were actively excluded from it. Their legal segregation could not prevent their interaction with and symbiotic relationship to the culture from which they were considered exempt even while that culture was inextricably indebted to its black counterparts, as illustrated so brilliantly in Ellison’s account of the black stage hands in his essay. However in productions like Allen’s and Peyankov’s, what was formerly an attempt to express total inclusion is instead an attempt to stress a fundamentally particularized African American one; it is an attempt to reify African American black identity as distinctly separate from its white counterparts, even while sharing the goals and familial conflicts inherent in these plays’ texts.
[ii] In Menagerie, Amanda represents a vestigial embodiment of the Old South. Tracing her timeline backward, we can place Amanda’s youth near the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, at a time when she tells us that she entertained “gentleman” callers, “Some of the most prominent men on the Mississippi Delta—planters and sons of planters” (Williams, Glass 403). As the play proceeds, Amanda is clearly intent upon preserving Southern traditions. Amanda most laments, among other things associated with the South’s passing, the loss of “all vestige of gracious living,” represented at least in part by the fact that “in the South we had so many servants” (442). In the same way, Williams describes his writing as an exploration of “a South that no longer exists … <and> of the forces that have destroyed it” (Davis 43).