Thursday, March 1, 2001
A classic play is getting a fresh look in its latest incarnation at The Coterie Theatre. The troupe, which sometimes stages cutting-edge productions of traditional fare, is opening Tennessee Williams' award-winning "The Glass Menagerie" next week. The play is still widely produced after debuting more than 50 years ago, and its popularity and continued relevance stems from its universal message of familial love and disappointment.
The latest Kansas City staging adds a contemporary twist by making the Wingfield family African-American, according to director Kevin Willmott.
"It brings a different dimension to the play," Willmott says. "The Southern culture is the black culture, with the exception of the 'Southern belle.' Williams has some version of the Southern belle in all his works, but we don't play that end of it up in this version."
In "The Glass Menagerie," the Wingfields have been abandoned by the father, who is a traveling salesman. That leaves the son, Tom, to care for the family, while his dominating mother, Amanda, busies herself trying to find a suitor for the painfully shy daughter, Laura. Tom feels trapped in his factory job and is torn between family responsibilities and leaving town to pursue his dream of a writing career.
The play is autobiographical. Williams, who bases the character of Tom on his own life, was once even fired from a job in a shoe factory for writing poetry while on company time. Williams' father left the family, and Williams' own sister, Rose, was severely shy, and eventually spent years in and out of mental institutions.
Centering the play on a black family gives the director the opportunity to comment on several social issues.
"One aspect of African-American culture deals with fathers leaving the family. African-American males often take a hit for this problem, and this shows why it happens. Doing this with an African-American cast puts a new spin, and new insight, into the problem," Willmott says.
Regardless of the actors' skin color, the play delves into human experiences that all cultures relate to, Willmott adds.
"What makes it so timeless is that it's grounded in the human condition. Tom wants a life but feels trapped. He's fighting to find passion in life. We all experience that in some form," he says.
Laura's character suffers from deep feelings of low self-esteem, but even she has moments of hope during the show. Viewers get the sense that she'll go on in life, no matter what heartaches and problems she encounters.
Willmott plans on incorporating the legacy of Kansas City blues throughout the play to highlight Laura's feelings. The new production (which stars Gena Bardwell, Kyndra Jones, Michael Rice and George Forbes) is even set in Kansas City.
"The play embraces the blues tradition," he says. "The blues are about continuing. Life kicks you and knocks you down, but you get up and keep going. You get the idea that Laura wants to keep going," he says.
More than just directing
Willmott, a Lawrence resident, is keeping busy with stage, screen and teaching projects. He works as an assistant professor of theater and film at Kansas University, where he teaches screenwriting along with a class on African-American images on film.
He also has written scripts for such Hollywood heavyweights as Oliver Stone, and he co-wrote last year's NBC miniseries, "The 70s."
Along with directing projects at The Coterie Theatre, Willmott has continued working on various film projects. He just finished a script adaptation for CBS of "The Watsons Go to Birmingham," based on the Newbery Award-winning book. The production's executive producer is Whoopi Goldberg, and actor Levar Burton is set to direct.
Willmott also is hard at work on a pseudo-documentary that he currently is filming in Kansas City and Lawrence.
"It's called 'C.S.A.' (Confederate States of America), and it's a fake documentary about what life would be like if the South won the war," he says.