Underwood’s ‘Streetcar’ role is a landmark

A Broadway first: Stanley as played by a black actor

- By Elysa Gardner USA TODAY

NEW YORK — Blair Underwood is the first African-american man to star in a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. But he’d argue that racial diversity is embedded in the Tennessee Williams classic.

“The first image you see in the play is a black woman and a white woman talking,” Underwood, 47, notes. “And the stage direction says something like — I’m paraphrasi­ng — ‘This is a world where the races intermingl­e socially.’ ”

On a day off from rehearsing Streetcar — now in previews at the Broadhurst Theatre, where it opens April 22 — the actor is grabbing lunch at a Midtown restaurant specializi­ng in the kind of spicy, decadent fare served in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where Streetcar is set.

“Williams lived in the French Quarter,” Underwood says. “He knew that gumbo of culture, the interconne­ctedness of the different people who lived there. This production has that.”

Underwood, who got his start in theater but is best known for roles in TV series from L.A. Law to In Treatment, is joined onstage by Broadway veteran Daphne Rubin-vega, who is cast as Stanley’s wife, Stella. Soul Food alum Nicole Ari Parker plays Stella’s haunted sister Blanche du Bois, whose visit unsettles Stanley.

In the original text, Stanley is Polish; his surname, Kowalski, has been dropped for this production. But social class remains an issue, with Blanche and Stella hailing “from a wealthy family that . . . possibly (owned) slaves at one point.” Underwood stresses that this isn’t implausibl­e: “My four-times great-grandfathe­r was a free person of color in the 1800s in Virginia. There was a class of (black) people in the South who had property and slaves.”

Underwood also points to an enduring “caste system” among people of color: “In the South, they had a brown-paper-bag test. There were more light-complected people who felt if you were darker than the color of the bag, you weren’t acceptable. That sentiment isn’t dead today, so when people see that I’m more dark-complected than (the actresses playing) my wife and her sister, that will resonate.”

Underwood relishes the challenge posed by the iconic role. “I see Stanley as a man-child. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and his fist on his sleeve. He’s loud and physical; it takes some doing to pace yourself.”

The actor also stars as a kidnap victim’s father in the film Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th

Day, out Friday. “The more I can flex my creative muscles, the happier I am.”

 ?? By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY ??
By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY
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