Transforming the Classic ‘Streetcar’

Nicole Ari Parker makes Blanche sing.

Nicole Ari Parker makes Blanche sing.

Nicole Ari Parker has a triumph in A Streetcar Named Desire that our mainstream media and the cli-quish Tony Awards are ill-equipped to handle. Parker’s ravishing, statuesque presence and intelligent skill make the play what it always ought to have been: a genuine contest between America’s sexual and political hypocrisies; social sense versus personal sensuality. In her own take on Blanche DuBois, the ultimate test for an American actress (bravo, Faye Dunaway; get outta here, Cate Blanchett), Parker shows the requisite physical strength and beauty and emotional instability. She is true to Williams’ archetype—so true that she complements Vivien Leigh’s awesome performance in Kazan’s 1951 film, yet brings something fresh.

It is Parker’s freshness that makes this Streetcar noteworthy. Let no less an authority than Paul Mooney explain why. Mooney broke it down in a 2010 interview with PopMatters: “Tennessee Williams knew about the South, but he would clean it up and lie about it. He knew the women, he knew the racial thing, he knew everything. He knew the incest, the child abuse, all that shit. He had to hide it because those white folks would get angry. A Streetcar Named Desire: Trust me when I tell you that Marlon Brando’s character [Stanley Kowalski] was a Creole, he was a black man. You see that movie or read that book, you’ll see it in between the lines. All Southerners know. Northerners won’t pick up on it, but we knew right away what it was about.”

African-American Parker (best known as a light-skinned, light-eyed decoration in the TV series Soul Food) embodies the switch necessary for Mooney’s theory to work that producers could/would not find an actor to fulfill. So Parker makes Blanche bear the black American’s burden. She is every socially subjugated but personally brave black woman that the movie The Help turned into a clown. Parker finds the heroic, persevering woman inside Williams’ often over-pitied conceit—an even greater archetype than Bess in Porgy & Bess—because she captures what Williams so magnificently articulated about Blanche’s sexual/spiritual struggles. She’s a victim yet she is never weak. Recalling the legacy of slavery and racist miscegenation, Parker’s Blanche keeps going—despite the social and patriarchal cruelties embodied by alpha male Stanley.

Mooney’s interpretation requires a male actor who could exemplify black sexual swagger; the Broadway and Hollywood mainstream are not quite ready for that, even though Melvin Van Peebles put it onscreen in 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song. Are SamJack and Denzel the only black actors practiced in sexual threat? Unfortunately, gymmed-up Blair Underwood is not. So Parker and director Emily Mann call on our compassion for multicultural, ambisexual struggle. This Blanche works on two levels: feminine and racial.

Like Audra McDonald in Porgy & Bess, Parker brings a cumulative cultural intelligence and recognizable passion to a classic part without succumbing to cliché. The key is in her readings, the authentic Southern lilt—the blues sanity—that evokes the sensibility of Bessie Smith’s “St. Louis Blues” and matches the love-wisdom in the finest, toughest, modern R&B music—that erotic realness radio DJs called “Quiet Storm.” Thanks to Parker, Williams’ great poetry (“It wasn’t the Flamingo, it was the Tarantula! The Tarantula Arms!” and “Suddenly there is God. So quickly!”) virtually sings like never before.


CRITICS PICKS

CLASSICAL

Songs of Beethoven, et al.: Christian Gerhaher, a penetrating German baritone, gives a recital of German art songs, accompanied by Andras Schiff, the Hungarian pianist. May 12, 8 p.m. Zankel Hall, 881 Seventh Ave. [Jay Nordlinger]

Sale of the Season: New York serves as a musical laboratory for six orchestras from around the country who share their artistic philosophies and unique programming concepts in the Spring for Music series at Carnegie Hall. A unique pricing structure allows complete artistic freedom. From May 7 to 12, tickets are $25, all six concerts for $100! [Judy Gelman Myers]

Free Your Faculties: The best things in life are free—like the 92nd Street Y faculty concerts. On May 11, 2 p.m., Columbia Artists keyboardist John McCauley plays a program of solo piano. 1395 Lexington Ave. [JGM]

GALLERIES

Looking for Home: Origins, a new exhibit at Chambers Fine Art, examines the work of two Chinese artists, Cui Fen and Taca Sui, as they explore what their homeland means to them after years spent living in the United States. Chambers Fine Art, 522 W. 19th St., May 3 through June 15 [Kate Prengel]

Singin’ in the Gallery: Dana Schutz leads a merry and mad dash through her fertile imagination. Colorful and edgy, the paintings will change your day. Dana Schutz: Piano in the Rain is at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, 537 W. 22nd St., through June 16 [Melissa Stern]

Arnold’s Kingdom: Everything old is new again in the 40-year career retrospective of contemporary sculptor Anne Arnold, whose extremely expressive cats, dogs, pigs and other assorted animals are on display at the Alexandre Gallery in the Fuller Building, 41 E. 57th St., though this upcoming week and into early summer. Not strictly representational, but you’ll recognize the genus, something rare in the art world these days. [Marsha McCreadie]

JAZZ

Undead Jazz Festival Alive: No jazz subgenre—only the word “edgy”—covers all 70-some intrepid ensembles catchable for one low price at neighboring Village venues Le Poisson Rouge, Kenny’s Castaways and Sullivan Hall from early eve to the wee hours of Wednesday, May 8, plus smaller shows at Brooklyn Masonic Temple, May 9; Seeds (near Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza) on May 11; and 92Y Tribeca, May 12. [Howard Mandel]

Jazz Foundation’s Greatest of Nights: The Jazz Foundation of America is the most righteous of organizations, saving and enriching the lives of musicians in need. Buy tickets now for its annual fundraiser, A Great Night in Harlem, with Quincy Jones, Randy Weston, James Carter, the Treme and Rebirth Brass Bands, Macy Gray, Geri Allen and many more donating performances to inspire generous financial support. Apollo Theater, May 17 [HM]

Take the A Train:, The Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival presents a week of music, films and readings related to the heritage of Harlem at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Small’s Paradise, the Apollo Theater, Harlem Stage Gatehouse (a three-pianist tribute to Cecil Taylor), Minton’s Playhouse, Red Rooster, Lenox Lounge, Showman’s Café and the Museum of African Art. May 7 through 13. [HM]

Salsa Meets Jazz Revisited: A multitude of musicians come together for a benefit/tribute to flutist Dave Valentin, who’s suffered a stroke. Performers include Latin jazz bassist Andy Gonzalez leading Libre; trombonist Papo Vasquez fronting Pirates and Troubadors; saxophonist-flutist Sonny Fortune; and trombonist Steve Turre. May 7, Le Poisson Rouge. [HM]

MUSEUMS

Four-Legged Like Me: In the Company of Animals: Art, Literature and Music at the Morgan offers a wide-ranging look at non-human creatures as depicted in the work of Audubon, Wegman and many others. The Morgan Library, 225 Madison Ave. through May 20 [Phyllis Workman]