An all-black “Cat” on Broadway

February 12, 2008
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Tonight, a new production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” begins performances on Broadway with a high-profile cast, including Terrence Howard, Phylicia Rashad and James Earl Jones.

Obviously this isn’t the cast that Tennessee Williams had in mind when the play was first produced in 1955.

In fact, it marks the first time that a black cast has tackled the show on Broadway.

There is, of course, precedent for such ethnic recasting. Think the Pearl Bailey revival of “Hello, Dolly” or the Robert Guillaume take on “Guys and Dolls” in the ’70s, for instance. Plays such as “The Gin Game” and “The Odd Couple” have proven their universality as well.

What may make “Cat” different, though, is that it takes place in a specific time and place and culture (the Deep South in the 1950s) that matter to what one thinks of the characters. To cite a specific example, the Big Daddy character (played by Jones) uses the n-word. That can’t help but resonate differently—and carry different meaning—than in previous productions.

I’ll talk about the issue of color-blind casting in later blogs (the idea of casting the best actor available regardless of race and historically reality). For now, I’m interested in “Cat” and such productions as the National Asian American Theatre Company’s “Our Town.”

It feels absurd to imagine the plays of August Wilson (his “The Piano Lesson” opens soon at the IRT) ever being done with all-white casts. But I wouldn’t be surprised if “The Wiz”—celebrated as an all-black “The Wizard of Oz”—will be ethnically mixed when it’s staged at American Cabaret Theatre this summer.

So when, in theater, does race matter? Is such casting a violation of the playwright’s intent? Or is that irrelevant?

Your thoughts?
  • Bravo! What a splendid cast for such a superb play! I've never thought of plays as being all white or all black or all anything. A definite plus to an all-African American audience is that it might draw new folks to the joys and wonders of live theater who might have never attended otherwise. I am caucasian and I would love to see this play with this cast.
  • Race should be considered only when or if the ethnicity would detract from the
    content. Imagine a white or Asian Jim in BIg River.......

    We're slow, but many theatres are trying to cast 'color-blind'.

    I'd like to see this show. I don't know whether James Earl Jones can really
    act. The reason is that all I can do is listen to that voice! Can't see
    Phylicia Rashad as Big Momma because she's such a strong personality, but she's
    probably good. hmmmm...some thought provokin' going on here, Lou! Thanks.
  • I am so excited for this production! Terrence Howard and James Earl Jones speaking Tennessee Williams' words - it can only be brilliant. I wish I was due to be in NYC over it's run.

    Why is it absurb to imagine an all-white cast of Piano Lesson? It might be fascinating to project different issues as opposed to race..what of class or maybe even sexuality? Good actors can make any production compelling and different race casting - can add a new twist to an interpretation. The NAAT production of Our Town sounds intriguing, too.

    Can we convince any of these theatre companies to tour? I would love to see both of those.
  • Unfortunately, touring drams are rare these days. Twelve Angry Men is part of the Broadway series this year, but can anyone remember the last time it featured a non-musical?

    FYI: The Acting Company--recently praised in the Wall Street Journal--is touring with two shows in rep: The Tempest and Moby-Dick--Rehearsed and will be coming through Indiana, stopping at Ball State and IU. Should be worth a roadtrip.
  • More on the subject from Sunday's New York Times.

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