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An all-black “Cat” on Broadway

February 12, 2008
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?
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