From white family to black: cast of Theatre UAB’s “The Glass Menagerie” discuss race and the play

The cast hopes this “brand-new story with classic roots,” portrayed by a black family, will humanize the black experience for audiences.

GlassJoomlaThe cast hopes this “brand-new story with classic roots,” portrayed by a black family, will humanize the black experience for audiences. Pictured: seated front, Cheryl Hall; seated middle, Alivia Moore; standing left to right: Devin Franklin and David Parker.A cast of black actors will step into characters likely envisioned as white by playwright Tennessee Williams, when Theatre UAB presents “The Glass Menagerie” from Feb. 26-March 1.

Theatre UAB is the performance company of the University of Alabama at Birmingham College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Theatre

The “brand-new story with classic roots” will be performed over five evenings at UAB’s Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, says student performer David Parker of Quinlan, Texas.  

“Five intimate explorations of themes that do not fixate on oppression, segregation and the struggle of the black experience as most black-centric stories do,” wrote Parker, who plays Tom Wingfield in the play and who wrote about the production as the show’s dramaturg. “Instead, we take a glimpse at the deterioration of a family dynamic plagued by abandonment, selfishness and delusion irrespective of race. Williams’ award-winning words might be the same, but the life behind the eyes of the characters is inimitably unique.”

“This new Tom Wingfield, the patriarch of the family, grew up during the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration, the physical and cultural shuffle of ‘six million black Southerners [moving] out of terror of Jim Crow to an uncertain existence in the North and Midwest,’ as Isabel Wilkerson explained in her book ‘The Warmth of Other Suns,’” Parker said of the reimagined Wingfield family. “He was influenced by poets and laureates such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois and many more.” 

Parker and the rest of the cast of Theatre UAB’s “The Glass Menagerie,” Alivia Moore of Mobile, Alabama; Devin Franklin of Hueytown, Alabama; and Assistant Professor of Theatre Cheryl Hall, gathered before rehearsal recently to talk about this production and the history of the play. Their discussion has been edited for length and clarity. 

The cast of the show will host a black-inclusive night, an evening in which Theatre UAB invites and encourages the audiences for whom they are telling this particular story to come see it. On Saturday, Feb. 29, in addition to the performance, a talkback on color conscious casting, culturally specific storytelling, and more will be offered, along with discounted $6 tickets to groups of 10 or more people.

Why is this a story people want to watch with a black cast? What makes this retelling so poignant?

Cheryl Hall, “Amanda”: “I think that, for audience members who are familiar with the story, hopefully this production with an African American cast will humanize the African American experience for them. It is about hope and disappointment and effort and sacrifice irrespective of race.”  

David Parker, “Tom”: “It’s a perspective that we all assume is there, was there, in this time and era; but it’s something that we haven’t seen in the shoes of such a popular production, not as often as you think you would or should. It’s not really a play that gets changed very much, but it tackles very common issues.” 

Devin Franklin, “Jim the Gentleman Caller”: “[There are] certain archetypes about how you should play Amanda, how you should play Laura; but because it’s not focused on race, it makes the black experience that much more human, because it’s like if we are constantly just acting or creating our art based on how white people are treating us … Our existence and who we are as a people is not dependent on white people and how they treat us. We have our own culture and our own nuance and the way we treat each other, our vernacular, the way we speak, just our music, our ways of life, the way we raise families, the communal aspect of black culture I think is really important … the line ‘we only have each other,’ that is a very common philosophy or understanding within this particular community, because we know how it feels to be ostracized by the dominant culture. I think it’s really important, and that is why I love this so much.”

On family dysfunction.

DP: “Family, how complicated family is and how loving it could possibly be, but also the parts people don’t discuss or share on Facebook, how ‘hey I hit my child today,’ or ‘I screamed at them,’ it’s not something people exactly want to tout, but that is part of the pie.”

Alivia Moore, “Laura”: I was thinking about this today, how this play explores how love and dysfunction can occur simultaneously, especially in the family unit. People think, how can those two things exist simultaneously with each other? This play definitely allows it to have its space. This does occur, it can occur at the same time. Amanda loves her daughter, but she is also doing all these terrible things to her … But you have to look at the motive for why she is doing it: She is afraid. [And with that] extra layer of her being an African American woman, and the opportunities during that time were very scarce, so that is possibly a motivation for why she is doing things, [but] it’s not obvious to the audience.”

Theatre UAB will present Tennessee Williams’ icon of American theater, “The Glass Menagerie,” at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26-29 and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 1, in UAB’s Alys Stephens Center. Tickets are $12 and $15, $6 for students, and $10 for UAB employees and senior citizens. For tickets, call 205-975-2787 or visit
Read more about the show.

On the character Amanda Wingfield in this production.

CH: “She does all the wrong things but for the right reasons, and all the wrong things are so tragically wrong. In a lot of regards, in a lot of productions, Amanda has been given a pass for her awkward behavior because she is a mom, because she is the only parent, the only active parent who is parenting, out of that almost pathological respect that parents gets, that Amanda gets, she gets a pass. The language hasn’t changed, the intention hasn’t changed, from Joann Woodward or Katherine Hepburn. If anything has changed, the energy has changed. It is not quite as docile and not quite as demure; in that regard I think it is a much more accurate memory for Tom … like all the old productions we are familiar with, Tom, oh it’s a memory play, I am gonna wax nostalgic about my mother ... Your mother was a hot mess.

“What is great about this production is that Dennis [director Dennis McLernon] is saying to the character, ‘She is a hot mess, and I am sick of her being placated and kowtowed to because she is the mom.’ She is still wrong, and her behavior is still damaging, and she is the source of a lot of toxicity in that dysfunction.” 

AM: “I think having Amanda raise the stakes in how she acts towards her children, you get to see just how fearful she is. If she was being docile, you don’t see [that] this woman is afraid, this woman was fearful, and I think that is so important for the audience because I think a lot of times we think, ‘oh you are doing this because you are mean’ … uncovering the layers, the audience is able to do more than just peek inside this family unit. They are able to see a little bit more, that this woman is afraid, she is trying to hold two different faces.”

On Tom.

CH: “I am not so sure that Tom is wrong. Tom is doing what he needs to do to save himself, and God bless him, he is not as neurotic as Laura, and he sees that because he is a man, he does have more options, and his future isn’t very bright staying in that house. What is so funny about this show is that Amanda goes on and on about, we need a gentleman caller, she needs a man, she needs a husband, she needs a mate, [and] nobody says boo about Tom, and his personal life, and who he is or isn’t dating or what he does or doesn’t want in any romantic or intimate relationship. So, he has got to look out for himself, and if he needs to leave to do that, I get it.”

Gary Fuqua, a black actor at UAB, wrapped the actors’ table discussion with this exhortation: “Come see ‘The Glass Menagerie’; it is incredible. From watching it as many times as I’ve watched it and seeing these actors grow into who they really are on stage, and the rawness and the beauty of it all, it is definitely something to see, so come see this show.”

On Amanda as a black woman.

AM: “Because of the level not only African American people during that time were at, but African American women … the opportunities were even less than men during that time.” 

CH: “Amanda doesn’t have any more opportunities – the Joanne Woodward Amanda, the Katherine Hepburn Amanda, the Shirley Booth Amanda, the Cherry Jones Amanda, in 1935 or 1939 — has no more opportunities than me and my brown skin Amanda have. And I think that is what hopefully the audience gets, that this particular story can affect them irrespective of race.  We can say, ‘oh woe is me,’ if we want to, we can make that part of the subtext of the performance. [But] that is not necessary, because she has got enough challenges on her plate, we don’t need to add blackness to her oppression. That ain’t necessary.” 

DP: “Economically, white women kind of stand on the shoulders of black women, because you can’t have white women in the middle class without having the black women existing in the lower class, it’s not possible. There has to be somebody for the middle class to stand on — there have to be people in the lower class generating, doing the jobs the middle class did not want to do. In the ’30s, opportunities are very scarce.”

CH: “Amanda is not middle class. Amanda if anything is wily. She is not a seamstress, she is not doing custom alterations, she doesn’t knit, she is not creating anything. She is a meager salesperson, she tries to sell, but when it comes to creating her own opportunity, she will take what is offered. Tom is creating his poetry and looking for a market for it; Laura creates her fantasies, but she dares not share them or market them or turn them into a lucrative commodity. When it comes to opportunity, it is the same all over. Amanda doesn’t have a housekeeper, she is not middle class, she would love to be middle class, she probably recollects it; but right now it is gone.”