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African-American Shakespeare Company Casts Theater Classics in New Light

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- "A Streetcar Named Desire" is a landmark of the theater and a classic film, known by many for its beauty, its stars and one iconic line -- "Stella!" -- screamed in agony by star Marlon Brando, in a role that earned him an Oscar nomination.

This month, fans of Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece were treated to a very different take on the familiar classic in a staging by the African-American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco.

Founder Sherri Young says the play is the definitive expression of the company's hallmark: re-envisioning classic plays with actors of color, in settings that reflect a different global world view.

Young and her talented directors and actors have taken Shakespeare on quite a tour, setting his works in war-torn Africa, the Caribbean and in one hometown location -- San Francisco's Fillmore District. But these productions are much more than the re-imagining of a different kind of noir.

When you experience one of the company's productions on stage, the result is so powerful that the old cliche "you have to see it to believe it" comes to mind. Young attributes this reaction to something very basic: the breakdown of some long-held stereotypes, happening in real time.

Words and phrases are re-imagined and spoken by the actors in a new, familiar way, leaving everyone -- in the audience and on stage -- feeling as though they are seeing something very fresh and real, rather than an antiquated classic.

"What it does, it changes the flavor of it," said artistic director L. Peter Callender.

"If you give Wynton Marsalis Beethoven's Fifth, you know he's going to have a little bit of flavor to it. You know he's going to hold that note a little longer, you know he's going to have that trumpet play just a little, he's going to have that piano riff a little sexier, a little more orchestral, a little spicier and that's what we do with these plays," Callender explained.

And "A Streetcar Named Desire" is one of Callender's favorite plays, a modern-day tragedy set in 1940s New Orleans. The company doesn't just do Shakespeare. It also performs two plays every year from the American literary canon.

During a recent dress rehearsal, Callender ran his two principal actors through several scenes. Callender says his overall vision holds true to the original play but the acclaimed director has altered at least one very important detail.

In the original play, there is a reference to an old New Orleans restaurant that did not serve Blacks, during the play's historical time period. Callender changed that reference in his production to reflect the name of a long-time Black owned Big Easy eatery.

The actors say they felt transformed by the experience as well.

Jemier Jenkins played the tragic, troubled Blanche Dubois, in the biggest role of her career to date. A role she said she could only envision herself in after she saw Nicole Ari Parker and Blair Underwood in the Broadway production of "Streetcar" back in 2012. Now she has stepped into the role just as the blockbuster movie "Black Panther" has been sparking discussions of diversity and representation in Hollywood. It's a process not lost on Jenkins.

"I think I bring the entire history of my people when I walk onstage," explained Jenkins. "I feel that when I wait in the wings before I come in, I have ancestors all behind me pushing me on and I feel that connection -- to who I am and to the people who come before me -- will bring something different and unique."

It's a deeply personal reaction, flowing from the same issues that inspired the Company's founder Sherri Young. It was the early 1990's and Young was an actress herself, with no knowledge of how to run a theater company. But Young knew she wanted to see change, and she also knew somehow, she could make that happen.

"I didn't see enough of *us* in the audience," explained Young. "And I was thinking my community doesn't like Shakespeare because it's old and antiquated and they want to see something that's lively and popping and fun and I wanted to bring that to my audience."

She succeeded and, as for Callender, the director says he holds a simple, yet profound hope.

"When the lights go up, I want them to sit for a second and think about what they saw," said Callender. "Not just because it was a primarily all-black cast. Certainly they'll see that. But I want them to say 'Wow! I've never heard that line spoken that way before or this company exists? Holy cow! I want to come back!'"

WEBLINK: African-American Shakespeare Company

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