African-American Shakespeare Company’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is on track

Streetcar
Lance Huntley/Courtesy

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When thinking of Tennessee Williams’ most iconic play, it is almost impossible not to think of its film adaptation — with Elia Kazan’s masterful directing and exquisite performances by Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando. “A Streetcar Named Desire” tells the story of a timid and estranged woman who comes to New Orleans to live temporarily with her sister. Generally, because of the play’s fame and popularity — as bestowed by veteran artists — it is difficult to imagine a greatly improved or extensively innovative production.

Since “A Streetcar Named Desire” is one of the most reenacted American plays, its pool of revivals contains various levels of mastery. The African-American Shakespeare Company gives a stronger production, with director L. Peter Callender offering a fresh and impressively witty approach to the life of Blanche DuBois.

The most unique reconstruction of style and tone is the show’s ubiquity of humor, the core foundation of the characters’ banter. Tongue-in-cheek verbal jousting, coupled with the actors’ smart delivery, adds flavor to the lines. Unlike many productions, which take on a more serious or even grim atmosphere, this version is saturated with comedic devices. In one moment of dramatic irony, when Stanley (Khary Moye) listens to Blanche’s (Jemier Jenkins) rant about him, it’s not as thrilling and nail-biting as it is in the original. Instead, it arouses scattered snickers, allowing the audience to relax in a moment that creatively subverts expectations.

Given the play’s tragic plot and themes of alienation and solitude, however, the injection of humor is a double-edged sword. Without a doubt, the intimate and inclusive voice of the African-American Shakespeare Company effectively penetrates through and denies the otherwise predictable nature of the script. The utilization of humor not only bathes the production in a distinctive light, but also extends a warm invitation for the audience to laugh and smile with them.

Yet from time to time, humor hinders the more emotional scenes from their full emotional impacts. Blanche’s monologue about Allen requires higher levels of empathy than the production endows. Her sorrowful confession should elicit more sighs of secondhand heartache, instead of soft chuckles. Occasionally, the audience is unable to recognize the mood of the setting or situation, clouded over by the facetious delivery of a previous dialogue.

Although it is likely that Callender predicted this kind of response, he decided to take the risk anyway, marking himself as a true artist of progression. He clearly would rather make this play his own, even if its style garners reactions that are not necessarily anticipated.

Streetcar

Lance Huntley / Courtesy

But to only mention the director’s fearlessness would be to snub everyone else involved of their well-deserved recognition. Although there were a few prop mistakes during the presentation, the actors’ ability to adapt to and naturally mend them reveals their versatility on stage. All the more, the production’s use of Black leads was a welcome break from previous majority-white stagings of the show.

The unforgettable vulnerability and fragility lying behind Blanche’s crumbling facade is remarkably displayed by Jenkins’ countenance. The slow yet inevitable unraveling of Blanche’s psychotic crisis is equal parts entertaining and heartbreaking to witness. Jenkins makes it easy for the audience to fall in and out of love with Blanche’s desperation, succeeding in grabbing the audience’s attention and relentlessly clutching onto it until her final line.

Santoya Fields brilliantly conveys Stella’s inner turmoil — her loyalty torn between her husband and sister. Fields does a marvelous job communicating the irresistible allure of Stella, and through her performance, everyone in the audience can understand Stanley’s obsession with her. Her posture, gestures and facial expressions disclose her desire and pursuit of thrill, excitement and pleasure.

And as Stanley, Moye is utterly terrifying. From his posture, to his mannerisms, to his undeniable masculinity, Moye scares the audience senseless, delivering violence laced with deliberate cruelty. A simple drop of his bag or a sudden slam of his fist on a table full of clattering silverware makes the audience flinch back simultaneously.

Before the show, it’s difficult to expect anything exceptionally new or creative from another production of the renowned play. Yet it’s clearly best to leave any preconceived notions at the door — to be ready to expand the capacity for empathy. With its unique blend of talent and humor, “A Streetcar Named Desire” runs on an unexpected, but welcome, track.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” will run at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre through March 18.

Contact Sophie Kim at [email protected].