Streetcar named deseo: Daphne Rubin-Vega reinvents Tennessee Williams on Broadway
Nicole Ari Parker, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Blair Underwood lead the multi-racial cast in the Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire.
By ED MORALES
After pushing past a swarm of middle-aged women desperately trying to get a glimpse of Blair Underwood — shirt or no shirt — at the backstage entrance of the Broadhurst Theater in NYC, you make your way up the rickety stairs to Daphne Rubin-Vega’s dressing room, only to discover that the 95-degree day has unleashed a visible pool of perspiration.
“Don’t sweat it,” the actress who plays Stella in the innovative multiracial cast version of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire purrs sympathetically.
“Do you know what it’s like to spray cocoa butter on yourself every night to convince the people in the front row that it’s always hot in New Orleans?” she jokes, spritzing her neckline with a flourish as if she were still onstage.
Rubin-Vega, who was born in Panama City but grew up in New York’s Greenwich Village with a Jewish-American stepfather, was chilling between matinee and evening performances of Streetcar. It’s an iconic work of American theater reinvented with a cast designed to give it an African-American flavor.
With Underwood as Stanley, Soul Food’s Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche Dubois, and Wood Harris as Mitch, Rubin-Vega makes the multicultural reality of New Orleans come alive in a way that never seems like a radical departure from the original — which starred Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden.
“You know ‘cat on a hot tin roof,’ the title of one of Williams’ famous plays, is a southern black expression,” says Rubin-Vega, whose stoic, yet smolderingly passionate Stella anchors the fireworks between Stanley and Blanche. “This production is about African American stars, and how the community comes out to support its own. It’s a mixed audience, and you don’t see that often on Broadway.”
One of the central themes of the play, the opposition between Stella and Blanche’s representation of a fallen Southern aristocracy, and the emergence of a less refined postwar working class culture symbolized by Stanley, gets transformed in Rubin-Vega’s eyes.
“What Stanley represents is inferior to Stella, something very prevalent in the Latino community, who’s lighter, who’s darker,” says the actress. “That intra-cultural black on black or Latino on Latino racism, that rings true to me; it’s been an experience in my life.”
At 43, Rubin-Vega’s life and career reflects a kind of perpetual multicultural identification, having grown up a half-white, half-black Panamanian in a bohemian neighborhood with children of mixed marriages, attending the legendary High School of Performing Arts immortalized in the movie Fame, and kicking off her career as a singer in the freestyle group Pajama Party. Her greatest claim to fame was her role as Mimi in the Broadway smash musical Rent but while she did draw some praise for her supporting role as detective Gloria Perez in the risqué film Wild Things, the theater (Les Miserables, Anna in the Tropics, Jack Goes Boating) has been her forte.
Rubin-Vega belongs to a small fraternity of Latino Broadway actors spanning back to Puerto Rican-born José Ferrer’s star turn as Othello in 1943, and the 1950s emergence of Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno, who both starred in mainstream plays as well as their more famous role, Anita in West Side Story (though prolific on Broadway, Moreno only played Anita in the film version of the latter).
More recently, Raul Julia and John Leguizamo became major players in their off-Broadway worlds of Shakespeare and the contemporary one-person show, respectively, and Karen Olivo and Lin Manuel-Miranda collaborated on In the Heights, the most successful Latino-themed Broadway play in decades.
Rubin-Vega’s strong musical theater bent puts her somewhere on the continuum between Rivera and Olivo, but she’s also a unique case. She is the rare Broadway actor who identifies strongly as an Afro-Latina (like the emerging Gina Torres, who has appeared in Dreamgirls and Raisin in the Sun) while seamlessly taking on African American roles.
Still, life onstage has its perils.
Rubin-Vega’s search to better understand her identity is a constant one.
“I love what I do, but sometimes it’s crazy you know, the Pringles and the talking,” says Rubin-Vega. “One night there was a woman who was videotaping the show from the first row and I took the phone from her. I was trying to stay in character.”
While the Terence Blanchard jazz-flavored score authentically augments the multicultural feel of New Orleans, Underwood’s sweaty arrogance plays up a chest-baring scene that in the 1951 Marlon Brando movie version recedes into the black-and-white cinematography.
“I have to say secretly that it’s really hot when Blair says, you mind if I take my shirt off, and sometimes the women make a lot of noise and it will charge both of ourperformances for the rest of the evening. It infuses everyone with energy.”
Rubin-Vega had originally wanted to play Blanche but jumped at the opportunity to play Stella, a woman trying to transition to a new life and too willing to sacrifice her dignity and safety to be with an abusive, yet physically attractive man seemingly below her station.
With Parker, with whom she enjoys working because she’s “constantly searching and finding the truth in Blanche,” Rubin-Vega feels a way to move beyond the old South’s class issues and re-think the way the roles reflect the struggles of minority women.
“I remember thinking part of the challenge was to not judge the character terribly,” Rubin-Vega says. “I always felt like, ‘damn, I wish Stella had made another choice,’ you know? It’s like she threw her sister under the bus and she stayed with this brute [Stanley],” she says. “That’s really weak and unenlightened of her.”
To a 21st century audience, Blanche’s erratic sex life and unwillingness to accept machismo doesn’t seem so much like certifiable mental illness — the play’s closing catharsis has her committed to psychiatric care for the kind of borderline alcoholism, delusions of grandeur, and critique of machismo that are endlessly catalogued on reality TV and the social media.
“Some people say they don’t think Blanche is crazy, but you know what is crazy?” muses Rubin-Vega. “Sometimes I feel that she’s going to come out ahead of Stella. Blanche is more of a survivor than Stella. She’s teetering but she’s not going to go into the snake pit, and Stella’s going to stay in the vortex of hell with Stanley.”
Just then, there is a knock on the door, and Rubin-Vega’s 7-year-old son Luca Ariel enters, causing her to gush in a mix of Spanish and English: “Doing this play has been one of my biggest achievements, but this is my masterpiece!”
Rubin-Vega, who performs occasionally with her straight-up rock band DRV (her 2006 release Redemption Songs features covers of Bob Marley and Cuban legend Silvio Rodríguez), says she is working on a performance monologue called Frequently Unanswered Questions, inspired in part by the story of her mother.
“I found a letter that my mother had written after she left her family, her husband, her children with aunts and uncles, to come here and pursue a better life, which is a very common immigrant story,” she recalls. “She was writing in the infirmary in the nursing school she attended in Manhattan, writing cathartically about what she had left, yearning for her homeland, Panama, and how she vowed to come back and fulfill her promise to make a better life for her family. I realized that if it hadn’t been for those actions that she’d taken, I would never be here sitting her talking to you.”
She goes to a row of framed photos in front of her makeup mirror and rushes back with a portrait of her Panamanian family.
“Blair Underwood did one of those [genealogy] shows, Who Do You Think You Are, and they traced his roots back to Cameroon,” says Rubin-Vega. “I feel that it’s my duty to find out what I am. My mother died when I was a kid and my ancestors are mostly gone, all gone. I have a 97-year-old aunt that I visit in Panama, and sometimes I look in my son’s face and I see her.”
Finally she turns to Luca Ariel, entranced by a hand-held video game player. “Luca, quieres ser Latino?” she asks.
He nods hesitantly.
“There are talks of going to London with Streetcar in the fall, and if so I will definitely be jaunting over to Spain,” she says. “I identify with that whole Gypsy, mutts of the world thing about it.”
A Streetcar Named Desire runs on Broadway until July 22.
(Top photo: Ken Howard; Daphne: Courtesy of Paradigm)