NEW YORK — New Yorker drama critic John Lahr set off a social media firestorm in December with a blog comment that called for a moratorium on those “infernal all-black productions of Tennessee Williams plays unless we can have their equal in folly: all-white productions of August Wilson.”
The theater community, as viewed from my portal on Facebook, found the comparison not just inept but inflammatory. Emily Mann, who happens to be directing the multiracial Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” starring Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker that opens later this month at the Broadhurst Theatre, however, refused to take the bait when we spoke during a rehearsal break in March. Her response to the question of the legitimacy of such a multicultural endeavor is short and sweet: “Tennessee always wanted this to happen.”
This is one of two major productions Mann is directing. The other is a powerful new work by Danai Gurira, “The Convert,” which had its premiere earlier this year at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., where Mann has long served as artistic director. The play, which was commissioned by Center Theatre Group and opens Thursday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in a co-production with McCarter andChicago’s Goodman Theatre, takes place in a British colony in southern Africa in the late 19th century. It’s a Pygmalion story involving a young woman whose Christian education forces her to choose between her traditional culture and the Western values she has ambivalently adopted.
It might strike some as odd that a white director is guiding these two productions. (Debbie Allen directed the 2008 African American production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” on Broadway that paved the way for this “Streetcar.”) But these works engage themes and concerns that Mann — a playwright as well as a director, best known for her Broadway production of “Having Our Say” — has been preoccupied with throughout her career. As someone who worked with her more than a decade ago at the McCarter, I can attest that the two poles of her sensibility — the poetic realism side and the social justice side — are united in these projects.
Mann didn’t just come of age during the tumultuous days of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s; she was given a world-class tutorial as it was unfolding. Her father was Arthur Mann, a highly regarded professor of American history at the University of Chicago. John Hope Franklin, the eminent African American historian, was her father’s colleague and closest friend. Their two families were intertwined, and Mann recalls the dinner discussions when she was in high school that informed her own understanding of the heated news of the day, including the assassinations ofMartin Luther King Jr. andRobert F. Kennedy.
“I had the most incredible privilege in my life growing up with two great historical minds at a time when the country was in convulsions,” Mann says. “It was all so close and intimate. And I was getting more and more radicalized by the politics of the day. To wrestle all this down with those two men was life-forming, character-forming.”
As a playwright, Mann has focused on documentary drama or “theater of testimony,” as it has been called. Plays such as her Obie-winning “Still Life,” “Execution of Justice” and “Greensboro: A Requiem” follow the pattern of her first play, “Annulla (An Autobiography),” a Holocaust survivor drama that elegantly layers research Mann conducted herself. As a director, Mann has been devoted to Ibsen, Chekhov, Lorca and Williams, and in particular to the strong female characters that their dramas often revolve around.
It’s as an artistic director that the capaciousness of her sensibility is perhaps most evident. During her more than 20 years at McCarter, she has formed fruitful relationships with a diverse group of playwrights, including Athol Fugard, Edward Albee, Dael Orlandersmith, Nilo Cruz, Marina Carr and Tarell Alvin McCraney — writers whose only common thread is their originality.
Mann’s long history with Williams goes back to 1979 when she directed “The Glass Menagerie” at the Guthrie Theatre. Strong reviews led to a personal acquaintance with the playwright and an invitation to work on a new play he was writing, “A House Not Meant to Stand,” which would turn out to be his last.
“We met and spent a lot of time together,” she recalls. “In the end I decided not to do it, because I worshiped him, and I was so young, and the play needed so much work and I didn’t know how to help him. He said, ‘Oh, you’ll just come down and live with me, Miss Emily, in Key West. We’ll wake up every morning and write.’ I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ He was really pretty out there then.”
Williams, Mann says, had hoped to have a production of color of “Streetcar” as far back as the late 1950s. “He kept giving permission to do this idea because he’d always known, as someone who knows New Orleans, how right this is,” she says.
Indeed, the stage directions of “Streetcar” call for an opening image of two neighbors, a white woman and black women, “taking the air on the steps of the building.” For anyone who might have had an issue with this in 1947, when the play opened on Broadway, Williams spells out, “New Orleans is a cosmopolitan city where there is a relatively warm and easy intermingling of races in the old part of town.”
Lahr has argued that the politics of race in the South are too culturally pervasive to ignore or revamp in Williams’ work. Yet this production of “Streetcar” apparently required very little in the way of adaptation. The name “Kowalski” has been cut, as has the word “Polack” and little details such as the name of a fraternity and a restaurant have been changed, but nothing substantial, Mann says.
“The idea is to make it a real New Orleans play,” she says. “The DuBois sisters are descendants of French Huguenots. This is what most of the free people of color were — the gens de couleur. Many of them owned their own plantations. They owned their own slaves. They owned their own homes. And it was a very elegant culture — the quadroon and octoroon balls. Stanley is working-class, darker-skinned. That doesn’t work for the way these women were brought up, one of whom could probably pass.
“Once you get the basic idea of where the snobbery or class structure rests, you don’t have to do anything else. What’s wonderful is what people often think of as a black accent, like that of the South Side Chicago African Americans I grew up with, is really Southern. The language of the play just works so well in this context. The music is all there.”
Mann says the timelessness of the play is the ultimate draw. “For me it’s always a conflict in our country between the sensitive, delicate, art-loving, tender people and the celebration of the mediocre and the brutish. Tennessee saw it early on. And we’re seeing it more and more — just look at our elections. These cruel people with no real sensibility or sensitivity toward others, no appreciation of art or music, culture or women.”
Gurira’s play, set in the region that would later be known as Zimbabwe and grappling with the roots of colonialism, would seem to be less immediately accessible to an American director. But Mann, who is well acquainted with South Africa through her friendship with Fugard and through research on a shelved screenplay she wrote on Winnie Mandela, said that her interest in African politics made “The Convert” impossible to resist.
More important, Gurira, whose plays include “In the Continuum,” which she co-wrote and performed with Nikkole Salter, and “Eclipsed” (both produced at the Douglas, which has been upholding CTG’s reputation for politically engaged drama) wanted Mann for the job.
“Whenever I write a play, I’m always like, ‘Who is the best partner?’” says the U.S. born, Zimbabwe-raised Gurira, whose sunny, slightly proper accent reflects the British-style education she received in Africa. “Emily was immediately at the top of the list. I just felt like it was something that she would understand, and take to, and nurture and helm in a way that I could trust.”
Gurira, who can be seen in the AMC series"The Walking Dead,"confesses that when she first read a scene of the play at McCarter, she deployed all of her acting skills to get Mann excited about the script. The author didn’t write the work to perform herself (“it’s a part of my artistic mandate that I create roles for women who are not me, but who look like me”), yet she used all of her theatrical cunning to ignite interest in what was then an early draft.
Of course the story of a bright, independent-minded woman trying to navigate her way within two clashing patriarchal cultures wasn’t a particularly hard sell. The protagonist, a turn-of-the-century character with connections not only to Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle but also to Ibsen’s Nora, reflects that struggle for freedom that has always captivated Mann’s imagination.
She says this has been one of the most fruitful moment of her career. Her health and energy have been good, despite her long battle with multiple sclerosis. Two of her plays were recently produced in London (“Execution of Justice” and her adaptation of “The House of Bernarda Alba,” in a production set in Iran). And at a time when the commercial forces of theater would seem to have the upper hand, she’s doing work that connects to her deepest values as an artist.
When asked whether there might be any complicated dynamics between a white director and two largely black casts, Mann says it ultimately comes down to trust. “I’ve directed so many plays by and about people of color, both African and African American,” she says. “As Blair said to me, ‘You have a lot of street cred in the black community.’”