- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
On Tuesday, 3 June 2008, Barack Obama became the first African American to lead a presidential ticket in the history of the United States. The following afternoon, I joined a full house to see the all-African American production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York City, starring James Earl Jones and Terrence Howard. Reflecting on these events, one might ask: Why was this show produced with this cast and at this time? Nontraditional and colorblind casting are frequently used to comment on racial issues, and these practices are never apolitical; however, the generalized contemporary setting created by costume and set choices removed the play from its more racially-charged original setting. [End Page 139]
Cat was not the only American classic to use nontraditional casting on Broadway during the 2007–08 season. S. Epatha Merkerson joined a mostly white cast in Come Back Little Sheba (Manhattan Theatre Club); Audra McDonald shared the stage with a diverse cast in 110 in the Shade at the Roundabout Theatre. But these productions both departed from Cat on one important point: their casts included an African American star with a white or white and black supporting cast. Other New York City companies have used nontraditional casting such as the National Asian American Theatre Company, which stages classic plays by authors like Brecht, Chekhov, and O’Neill with all Asian American casts. Nevertheless, this production of Cat is rare in its use of a monoracial cast in what is textually a mixed-race story; Williams’s original has African American servants working for the white Pollitt family, while Allen’s production had both African American family members and servants.
The design choices and the casting of the show prevent racial interaction onstage, resulting in a production that skirts issues of race. Set in an unspecified contemporary period in which women wore dresses and heels and men wore suits, an African American man shown as one of the wealthiest plantation owners in the state is less likely to strike the audience as unrealistic than it would have in the original 1950s setting. Big Mama’s (Phylicia Rashad) dress and hairstyle hinted at the 1990s, while May’s straightened and French-twisted hair reflected more immediately contemporary styles. Her maternity dress was form-fitting, a trend not seen in maternity fashion until the 1990s. Maggie’s wardrobe had a vintage flare, reminiscent of the original period of the piece, while Big Daddy and Goober both wore suits, with tie and lapel sizes reflective of today’s dress. The contemporary style mixed with mid 1900s influences created a world where it was not unrealistic that Big Daddy, like Obama, could rise to a position of power.
Two set pieces also helped establish the period. Brick was a professional football player, a position often occupied by African American men today, as the audience was reminded of when the family turned on a television set in an attempt to cheer Brick, the set showing a short clip in color of a contemporary football game. Since color television is more recent, it, along with the costumes, supported the more contemporary time period. The only dated item was the corded telephone, which, though still found in some households, is not sold by many retailers. The cord on the phone, however, determined the blocking, requiring the user to stay put. Regardless of whether this choice was practical or aesthetic, it helped to build the sense of an unspecific contemporary setting, since the telephone could have been found in a home during the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s. By moving the production beyond a specific date in costume and set choices, the production team freed itself from having to address a clear political moment—the more general contemporary setting allowing for a more universal message.
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