The New York Times' Disappointing Review of "A Streetcar Named Desire"
Brantley let us down. From the pulpit of The New York Times, one of the worldâ€™s leading periodicals, he had the opportunity to demonstrate the global relevance and timelessness of art, cultural expertise and professional courage.
After reading Ben Brantley’s April 22, 2012 review of a "Streetcar Named Desire" in The New York Times, I was left with a most curious feeling. His write-up seemed fair enough; he offered a basic summary, discussed the various characters and even offered a historical timeline of the legends who have performed Tennessee William’s work over the years but still, something was lacking.
With all due respect to Brantley’s theatrical insights, he missed the nuances of culture in the current multi-racial casting of “A Streetcar Named Desire” that would have likely enriched his review. His assertion, “I wouldn’t care if all the performers were green” suggests that he accepts the U.S. as an “incontestably mulatto” nation --Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans, 1970-- and that his interest lies only in the quality of the dramatic performance. Professional integrity notwithstanding, his timid nod to cultural history in noting the “easygoing ethnic eclecticism of the New Orleans quarter” was woefully insufficient.
A deeper understanding of U.S. cultural heritage might have led to a more substantive analysis of the play.
Terence Blanchard’s original score shapes the play’s action. Through the intimacy of the blues --listen to Duke Ellington’s song of the same name-- and the complexities of jazz, African American culture forms the foundation of the play. Brantley, the reviewer, notices “none of the spontaneity or urgency” of William’s version but also misses the subtleties in the current play. His focus on Blair Underwood's and Nicole Ari Parker’s good looks, the “many hours at the gym” he imagines Underwood has spent, Daphne Rubin-Vega’s “pin-up” girl sultriness and Wood Harris’s “likable gangliness” is not only topical to the point of stereotyping but is amateurish.
Brantley allowed desire to mask his cultural ignorance and missed the edginess of the blues. Its lamentations contained within the complexities of jazz indicate the triumph of the spirit amidst life’s intricacies. The flashes and explosions of action Brantley craves are culturally inaccurate; rather and instead, the actors meet life’s inevitabilities with grace, elegance, and inherent hopefulness – the very “stuff” of the blues.
To be sure, historically marginalized people the world over have devised strategies for surviving and thriving in spite of the most inhumane circumstances. What Brantley saw but missed on stage was the ability of talented, culturally sophisticated actors to relay a story of triumph despite rape, domestic violence, financial hardship and the like. Nicole Ari Parker’s masterful depiction of Blanche endows the role with the tragicomic consciousness of the blues. She may be down but not for long. Offering a glimmer of insight, Brantley notes, “You don’t have to interpret Blanche’s fate as tragic.” Indeed, the nervous breakdown of previous iterations is a relic of a different time and place. So, too, is Brantley’s review.
Brantley let us down. From the pulpit of The New York Times, one of the world’s leading periodicals, he had the opportunity to demonstrate the global relevance and timelessness of art, cultural expertise and professional courage. Instead, he displayed professional timidity and the cultural ignorance of the most distant “outsider.”
Brantley shirked the responsibility to provide an informed review for his readership. This was Brantley’s “break,” his moment of truth and he failed us miserably. To borrow from one of Albert Murray's essays, this was Brantley’s chance to “improvise, to do your thing, to establish your identity, to write your signature on the epidermis of actuality” – and so he did.
Finally, Brantley’s ill-informed write-up speaks to the need to diversify the talent pool of theatrical --at least-- reviewers. We need writers who bring depth of perception and courage to the reviews they offer. This is a requirement of the global economy.
Jacquelynne Modeste, PhD
The Global Roundhouse
Follow me on Twitter @GlobalJackie
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