my review of 2008 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

PHYLICIA RASHAD as Big Mama and JAMES EARL JONES as Big Daddy in the 2008 revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” by Tennessee Williams.
PHOTO BY: Sara Krulwich of the New York Times.

When producer Stephen C. Byrd approached Maria St. Just, the executor of playwright Tennesseee Williams’ estate for the rights to produce Cat On A Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, three days before her death, she approved on one condition: that James Earl Jones play the role of “Big Daddy” Pollitt. According to this fourth revival of this Tennessee Williams’ classic at the Broadhurst Theatre, Maria St. Just could not have had a better suggestion. James Earl Jones’ Big Daddy is indeed outstanding. It shines not only due to Jones’ extraordinary interpretation but also because of the way Williams writes it. Big Daddy is the one character whose status and motivations drive this entire play: it is his inheritance that two sides of the family fight for as he is dying of cancer, yet it is also his drive to get to the root of his son’s alcohol addiction that reveals his son’s deep-seated problems we are introduced to in Act One. Big Daddy’s son is Brick, played by Terrence Howard who in his Broadway debut, settles into the alcoholic Brick seamlessly. His wife is Margaret, also known as “Maggie the Cat,” played by former Dreamgirl and stage actress Anika Noni Rose. The entire play opens and closes in the one place where Maggie vies desperately for more attention, the same place where Jack Straw and Peter Ocello, the fictional former owners of the estate, confronted their issues: the bedroom. In this space, Maggie desperately seeks sexual attention from Brick whose intentional drunken stupor keeps her at bay. Brick reveals to the audience this real divide between him and Maggie when he tells her: “You keep forgetting the conditions on which I agreed to stay living with you.” This marriage reeks of a theme that Brick first utters; a theme that is repeated throughout the play: mendacity. In this play, mendacity is most clearly the act of putting on a charade of being content in a marriage, when in reality, genuine mutual love and affection is all but absent. This trope is seen again in Phylicia Rashad’s emphatic interpretation of Big Mama, who is Big Daddy’s doting yet insecure, overbearing, and unloved wife. She raises the mendacity of her marriage to Big Daddy when she repeatedly tries to chastise Big Daddy for his harsh verbal attacks against her, all to no avail because as he admits to his son, “I haven’t been able to stand the sight, sound, or smell of that woman for forty years now!” Jones’ “Big Daddy” is cantankerous and especially ebullient with Jones’s booming baritone to match. His interpretation was especially vivid in Act Two when Brick reveals to him that he is in fact dying of cancer, and his angry response causes his mouth to tremble in such a distorted manner that Big Daddy ends up salivating on the stage floor, providing the audience an incredibly real, palpable glimpse into Big Daddy’s sudden anger at the family’s mendacity about his cancer. Howard’s interpretation of Brick was especially vivid when he sheds tears after Big Daddy forces him to answer questions about his excessive drinking. When Brick replies that he drinks because of his disgust with mendacity, Big Daddy instead demands that he confront his affection for his deceased friend, Skipper. Howard’s Brick is especially compelling when he insists that Big Daddy and everybody else is trying to name his relationship to Skipper “dirty,” as in a purely physical relationship; it is compelling because we get Brick’s resentment of a society that sullies genuine relationships. This second act is where both Howard and Jones shine brightest in their theatrical moments, in Big Daddy’s rekindled anger at his family and in Brick’s full frustration with the distortion of his relationship with Skipper (Brian Parker writes that Williams insisted that Brick, contrary to popular belief, is not a closeted gay character, but in fact a heterosexual man). This second act is Williams’ most important moment of his play, perhaps because in his 1974 script he writes the longest stage direction in it about the dialogue between Big Daddy and Brick. Williams is obviously most preoccupied with these two characters the most, as Brick’s alcoholism brings the whole family to his room to celebrate Big Daddy’s birthday, yet it is only after his conversation with Big Daddy that he is able to get what he calls the click in his head that makes him peaceful. It is only after Big Daddy talks with Brick that he begins his eternal peace, one could argue, when he dies on the mansion roof. Both characters progress in some manner only after cultivating dialogue; Williams is clearly concerned with the strength of the father-son relationship and makes Big Daddy empathize with Brick more than any other character, despite his alcoholism. Big Daddy tries to help Brick by sharing his own sexual history with his son, in order to try and reduce the stigma Big Daddy sees in Brick’s relationship with Skipper; he tells Brick he’s “slept in hobo jungles and railroad Y’s and flophouses in all cities.” Yet this line is interrupted by Brick’s demand from Big Daddy of the source of the suggested physical relationship with Skipper. Williams shows Big Daddy as an ultimately warm character, sympathetic to those who are in most apparent need of sympathy and therapy. Williams also clearly criticizes the encouraged societal norms that Brick’s brother Gooper represents, who is a successful corporate lawyer and father of five going on six children. Williams’s Big Daddy resents such conventional, orthodox types who withstand the mendacity in order to keep up appearances of normalcy. Big Daddy therefore takes a liking to Brick and tries to resolve his drinking problem. On some level Big Daddy notices and resents the issues confronted by trying to fit into the conventional modes of the “upper class success” that Gooper embodies, whose arrogant interpretation by Giancarlo Esposito is well done. He and his wife Mae, played by Lisa Arrindell Anderson, plot not only to gain Big Daddy’s inheritance, but to prove that Maggie’s inability to sleep with Brick and conceive a child makes both Maggie and Brick unqualified to get the inheritance. Gooper balks at the possibility of the alcoholic Brick getting it. The decision about who gets Big Daddy’s inheritance is resolved in Act Three. The casting of this scene by an all-African American cast marks a significant change in the roles of African Americans on the Great White Way. This play provides perhaps the most in-depth, writing into the mature African American father-son relationship for a Broadway production, thus proving that Williams’ script, written originally for white actors, is a human story that appeals to all audiences and actors, regardless of race. This adaptation with very few changes proves that this is a script that director Debbie Allen has accurately called “universal.”

Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.