When acclaimed local actor L. Peter Callender took over as artistic director of African-American Shakespeare Company a couple years ago, he said he wanted to add some modern American classics to the company’s regular offerings of William Shakespeare and holiday fairytales. His staging of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with an all-black cast, inspired by a similar 2008 production on Broadway, is exactly the sort of thing he was talking about.
Although it wouldn’t make a lick of sense with Yankees, the play works perfectly well with an African-American cast. While the patriarch is a rich plantation owner, the family isn’t born of the Southern aristocracy but clawed its way up from humble beginnings. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play debuted in 1955, when the South was still very much segregated, but it doesn’t contain much in the way of references tying it to a particular period. And the way people talk isn’t the way people spoke in that time or any other; there’s a unique, ornate poetry to Williams’ dialogue that puts his plays in a world of their own.
ZZ Moor is riveting as Maggie the Cat, the beautiful but neglected wife of the family’s favored son, Brick. An ex-football hero, Brick has devoted himself to drinking full time since his best friend died, in fierce denial about the nature of their friendship.
The melodramatic Maggie is always performing, posing seductively, and kvetching nonstop in a singsong Southern accent. Her brother-in-law Gooper and his wife Mae keep popping out kids and lobbying to inherit the prosperous plantation when Big Daddy dies, but Maggie refuses to let herself be passed over. Yes, her husband drinks all day and refuses to sleep with her, hence their childlessness, but Brick is the favorite son and Maggie’s own drive and charisma are such that you find yourself rooting for her when the estate would almost certainly be better off with Gooper.
Tyrone Davis’s brooding and taciturn Brick runs as cold as Maggie runs hot, staring at her disinterestedly as she rattles on. He softens up slightly with his father, Big Daddy, at least allowing himself an occasional smile, but he won’t let anyone in to his private pity party, always hobbling away to get another drink when anyone tries to connect with him.
Peter Temple makes a gruff and weary curmudgeon as Big Daddy, whom everyone’s afraid to tell he has terminal cancer. Big Daddy is often played as a bully used to throwing his weight around, and certainly there’s a brusque meanness about him, but here it feels born wholly of his exasperation with all the family drama. Whether he’s the one who mandated that atmosphere in the first place is neither here nor there.
Eleanor Jacobs is tremendously animated as his wife Big Mama, clomping around with her arms waving, effusing and fussing loudly. ShawnJ West is businesslike and passive-aggressive as Brick’s older brother Gooper, but he also carries the resigned world-weariness of the good son who always did what he was told and never got a kind world for it. Yazmina Kay’s Mae is amusingly overstated in her catty glares. She tattles and sucks up with a thwarted sense of entitlement, though she sometimes jumps her cues, reacting to something the other person has barely started to say.
With a huge Al Sharpton coif, Robert Henry Johnson is amusingly buffoonish as Reverend Tooker, and E. “Alx” Alexander’s milquetoast family doctor cringes into the background. Essenia Robinson, Rass Robinson, and Bianca Bougere are charming as three of Mae’s many children (or “no-neck monsters” as Maggie calls them).
Creating an impressive illusion of depth, Sarah Phykitt’s set depicts an elegant bedroom filled with diaphanous curtains; a painted tree-lined background visible past the veranda. Costumer Michelle Mulholland gives Maggie elegant attire to luxuriate in, and Callender’s staging accentuates the atmosphere with a little Nina Simone, a little Richard Wagner.
For all its popularity, Cat can be a difficult play to pull off, with long expository speeches and certain phrases and metaphors that are repeated over and over: “mendacity,” “that click in my head” (when Brick’s finally had enough to drink for the moment), and of course the title image itself. But Callender and his cast deliver an admirably solid production, lingering lovingly over Williams’s florid language while keeping the pace brisk and the characters not so much larger than life that they cease to be lifelike.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs through February 17, 2013 at the African American Art and Culture Complex in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit african-americanshakes.org.
All photos by Lance Huntley.