Most of us are used to bits of colorblind casting, the kind where Denzel Washington plays Brutus in "Julius Caesar" or James Earl Jones plays an author based on J.D. Salinger in "Field of Dreams." But we can still be startled when a director entirely recasts a classic play written for white performers.
Startled and, in the case of the all-black version of "The Glass Menagerie" at Theatre Charlotte, touched deeply. And more importantly, enlightened: The cast has found universal elements in Tennessee Williams' play and also gotten us to think differently about characters we may take for granted.
Williams never produced a more autobiographical piece. The setting is St. Louis, where Williams moved from Columbus, Miss., when he was 7.
The narrator is named Tom Wingfield, and Williams' first name was Thomas. He labors in a factory but writes on the side; his father isn't a presence in his life; his mother is a borderline hysteric and his gentle sister - nicknamed Blue Roses by a classmate - is so withdrawn that people think she's abnormal. (Rose, Williams' real sister, was schizophrenic.)
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So when we see black actors embodying these roles, however vividly, we may think, "Wait a moment. Doesn't this play belong to a white cast, if it's so much about Williams' life?" But it doesn't. It's a fable, however much he borrowed from his own past and present.
Director Tim Ross has made three crucial changes. First, he gives us two Toms: the younger one who's part of the action, burning with a need for adventure (Sultan Omar El-Amin), and the narrator, who in this version has been away from the family for many years and found little satisfaction in his wanderings (Ron McClelland). The older Tom thus continues a cycle of desertion and rootlessness begun by his father, whose photo remains on the Wingfields' wall. (It is, in fact, a picture of McClelland's dad.)
Second, Ross has moved the play forward from 1945 to the early 1950s, when blacks hoped that war service by soldiers of color and postwar prosperity would lead to better opportunities for minorities. (They didn't, much.) This fact lends poignancy to the gentleman caller (Jonavan Adams), usually played as a buoyant optimist. Here his zest and self-assurance have a hollow ring, as if he's realized that he may not rise as fast or far as he'd hoped.
Third, the characters are now part of the exodus of blacks from the South between Reconstruction and World War II. They might have relocated to Chicago or Pittsburgh or Detroit, but they ended up in St. Louis, where life is hard.
Young Laura (Ericka Ross, no relation to the director) is not just painfully shy but deeply depressed. Mother Amanda (Corlis Hayes) is no longer a social butterfly who's aged into a nagging old maid; she's a vibrant woman, still vigorous and sexual, with no outlet now for her energy and desires.
A few of Williams' lines don't work in this version: A black woman would never have been courted openly by the sons of rich Mississippi planters in the 1920s, because they'd all have been white.
But those false notes are few. And like Duke Ellington's re-orchestrations of Tchaikovsky and Grieg, this adaptation lets us enjoy listening to a familiar classic while hearing things we never thought it would say.