Current Weather
The Spy FM

Blair Underwood On Stanley, Stella And ‘Streetcar’

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
April 21, 2012

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.”

[Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

9PM to 5AM The Spy

The Spy

An eclectic mix of the Spy's library of more than 10,000 songs curated by Ferris O'Brien.

Listen Live Now!

5AM to 9AM Morning Edition

Morning Edition

For more than two decades, NPR's Morning Edition has prepared listeners for the day ahead with two hours of up-to-the-minute news, background analysis, commentary, and coverage of arts and sports.

View the program guide!

9AM to 10AM The Takeaway

The Takeaway

A fresh alternative in morning news, "The Takeaway" provides a breadth and depth of world, national and regional news coverage that is unprecedented in public media.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center