Stage director Emily Mann. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
NEW YORK — New Yorker drama critic John Lahr set off a social media firestorm in December with a blog comment that called for a moratorium on those "infernal all-black productions of Tennessee Williams plays unless we can have their equal in folly: all-white productions of August Wilson."
The theater community, as viewed from my portal on Facebook, found the comparison not just inept but inflammatory. Emily Mann, who happens to be directing the multiracial Broadway production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" starring Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker that opens later this month at the Broadhurst Theatre, however, refused to take the bait when we spoke during a rehearsal break in March. Her response to the question of the legitimacy of such a multicultural endeavor is short and sweet: "Tennessee always wanted this to happen."
This is one of two major productions Mann is directing. The other is a powerful new work by Danai Gurira, "The Convert," which had its premiere earlier this year at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., where Mann has long served as artistic director. The play, which was commissioned by Center Theatre Group and opens Thursday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in a co-production with McCarter andChicago's Goodman Theatre, takes place in a British colony in southern Africa in the late 19th century. It's a Pygmalion story involving a young woman whose Christian education forces her to choose between her traditional culture and the Western values she has ambivalently adopted.
It might strike some as odd that a white director is guiding these two productions. (Debbie Allen directed the 2008 African American production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" on Broadway that paved the way for this "Streetcar.") But these works engage themes and concerns that Mann — a playwright as well as a director, best known for her Broadway production of "Having Our Say" — has been preoccupied with throughout her career. As someone who worked with her more than a decade ago at the McCarter, I can attest that the two poles of her sensibility — the poetic realism side and the social justice side — are united in these projects.
Mann didn't just come of age during the tumultuous days of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s; she was given a world-class tutorial as it was unfolding. Her father was Arthur Mann, a highly regarded professor of American history at the University of Chicago. John Hope Franklin, the eminent African American historian, was her father's colleague and closest friend. Their two families were intertwined, and Mann recalls the dinner discussions when she was in high school that informed her own understanding of the heated news of the day, including the assassinations ofMartin Luther King Jr. andRobert F. Kennedy.
"I had the most incredible privilege in my life growing up with two great historical minds at a time when the country was in convulsions," Mann says. "It was all so close and intimate. And I was getting more and more radicalized by the politics of the day. To wrestle all this down with those two men was life-forming, character-forming."
As a playwright, Mann has focused on documentary drama or "theater of testimony," as it has been called. Plays such as her Obie-winning "Still Life," "Execution of Justice" and "Greensboro: A Requiem" follow the pattern of her first play, "Annulla (An Autobiography)," a Holocaust survivor drama that elegantly layers research Mann conducted herself. As a director, Mann has been devoted to Ibsen, Chekhov, Lorca and Williams, and in particular to the strong female characters that their dramas often revolve around.
It's as an artistic director that the capaciousness of her sensibility is perhaps most evident. During her more than 20 years at McCarter, she has formed fruitful relationships with a diverse group of playwrights, including Athol Fugard, Edward Albee, Dael Orlandersmith, Nilo Cruz, Marina Carr and Tarell Alvin McCraney — writers whose only common thread is their originality.
Mann's long history with Williams goes back to 1979 when she directed "The Glass Menagerie" at the Guthrie Theatre. Strong reviews led to a personal acquaintance with the playwright and an invitation to work on a new play he was writing, "A House Not Meant to Stand," which would turn out to be his last.
"We met and spent a lot of time together," she recalls. "In the end I decided not to do it, because I worshiped him, and I was so young, and the play needed so much work and I didn't know how to help him. He said, 'Oh, you'll just come down and live with me, Miss Emily, in Key West. We'll wake up every morning and write.' I was like, 'Oh, my God.' He was really pretty out there then."
Williams, Mann says, had hoped to have a production of color of "Streetcar" as far back as the late 1950s. "He kept giving permission to do this idea because he'd always known, as someone who knows New Orleans, how right this is," she says.