This month, when the African-American Shakespeare Company performs Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire at Marines’ Memorial Theatre, the actors will speak the same lines and play out the same scenes and plot twists that have kept audiences rapt since the show was first performed in 1947. There will be a spectacular Blanche, a tyrannous Stanley, and yes, someone will scream “Stella!” But in many ways it will also be an entirely new show.
Williams’s play has rarely felt so alive, so relevant, as in the wake of the #metoo movement that has, in 2017, toppled movie stars, potential senators and network anchors. The story you still remember from high school English class—all that bubbling tension exploding in one of theater’s most shocking moments of sexual violence—simply cannot be seen in the same light that it once was.
“The country is currently going through an important time of outing sexual violence,” says Artistic Director L. Peter Callender, who also directs the production. “This play deals with all of that—domestic violence, rape and anger issues.”
In order to foster a safe environment, Callender reached out to the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department for collaboration: After each performance, professional therapists and case workers are invited to talk to the audience and hold Q&A sessions on tough issues like sexual assault, anger issues, unhealthy relationships and rape.
“The nation is in a very serious place right now,” adds Callender. “I wanted to make a statement. I don’t want to sugarcoat this at all.”
Another way this Streetcar will be unlike others you have seen is that the entire cast (with the exception of the character Eunice) is African-American. While not a single line of dialogue will be changed, the cast serves as an important reminder that women of color are too often silenced when speaking out against sexual assault.
“I want the audience to really feel Blanche’s pain and engage with her reality,” says Callender. “She’s struggling to tell the truth about what happened and she feels alone in the world.”