When producer Stephen C. Byrd was casting his all-black revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," he approached James Earl Jones for the role of Big Daddy. Jones told Byrd that he always wanted to portray the Mississippi patriarch, a pivotal part previously played on Broadway by Burl Ives, Fred Gwynne, Charles Durning and Ned Beatty.
And why not, says Byrd: "Are certain plays only reserved or preserved for white actors? The play is the thing, and this one is about family."
And this season on Broadway, it has not just been "Cat," which, besides Jones, features a potent box-office cast that includes Terrence Howard as Brick; Anika Noni Jones as his affection-starved wife, Maggie; and Phylicia Rashad as the emotionally frail Big Mama.
"It's not a gimmick, especially for plays that are classics," says Kenny Leon, a veteran director of August Wilson plays as well as the recent Broadway revival and television version of "A Raisin in the Sun."
"With plays such as `Cat,' which have withstood the test of time, you are always trying to find new ways to introduce them to a new generation," Leon says. "There is no such thing as `blind casting.' You have to say: `What does this do to the piece? Does it heighten the playwrights intent? Does it demonstrate his skill of poetry? Does it say those universal things in a different kind of way?"
In "Cat," for example, look at the relationship between Brick and Maggie, Leon says. Brick is a man struggling with his sexuality, while his beautiful wife is forced to fight for her husband's share of his family's wealth.
"It's time for the world to change," says Debbie Allen, director of the current "Cat" revival. "Let's get over this whole race thing. The world today, with this presidential campaign and the Democratic nominee going to be either an African-American or a woman, it's time to move forward.
"I played (Charity in) `Sweet Charity' on Broadway, and nobody asked me about being black in that. And Anita in `West Side Story,' too.
Allen went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in acting and directing and "studied all the classics _ Chekhov, Strindberg, the Greeks, Tennessee Williams ... we didn't look at ourselves as doing a different kind of casting. We just went and played the parts as acting and directing students."
Allen came to "Cat" after she and Byrd decided to do an all-black version of Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire." The production never materialized. But "Cat" was also on their list.
"I hadn't read the play in years but it spoke to me," she recalls. "I grew up in Texas and Louisiana (among other places) and we called my daddy `Big Daddy.' So the South is something that is a part of my life. I knew these characters as people in my own family and in my own world.
"I understood the importance of this play which I think now is even more relevant than it was in its original time. The theme of mendacity _ What is the truth? Can we really bear to look at the truth? _ still resonates."
Small changes were made in the script, mostly references, and the deletion of one passage when Maggie talks about slavery in her family, according to the director.
"Williams never says what the year is ... It's just summer in the Mississippi Delta," Allen says. "For our own sensibility, we moved it forward 25, 30 years. So we could logically experience black people playing in the Rose Bowl. In 1955 (when `Cat' originally opened on Broadway), we weren't there."
Does a black cast give "Cat" a different twist?
"Sure it does," says Oskar Eustis, artist director of the Public Theater, which has ben a leader in nontraditional casting since the 1950s and the early days of Joe Papp. And that's fine, he adds.
"America is a racially diverse country, and we're all Americans," Eustis explains. "And whether it's an ethnic-specific casting choice, like they are making on `Cat,' or whether they are making a nontraditional casting choice _ where you cast blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos together _ you are still making the statement that people of all races are part of the American experience and should portray our classics on stage."
This summer, the Public will present "Hamlet" as one of its two free productions in Central Park. "We will naturally try to find the best actors possible but we will also definitely be trying to portray the diversity of our country on stage," Eustis adds. "An all-white American production is a lie because we are not an all-white nation."
For Byrd, his all-black "Cat" seems to have paid off at the box office, with weekly grosses at the Broadhurst Theatre regularly topping $600,000, more than some musicals.
Says Leon: "When you get the opportunity to see Phylicia Rashad, who I think is an American treasure, and James Earl Jones, at this point in his career, that's pretty exciting _ no matter what the race. They are great American artists."