He’s been acting for three decades and his performances have earned him two Golden Globe nominations and a Grammy Award, but tonight will be the first time actor Blair Underwood steps onto the Broadway stage.
Underwood makes his Broadway debut Tennessee Williams’ classic play “Streetcar Named Desire,” as the brutish Stanley, the role that made Marlon Brando a star, first on Broadway and later on the big screen.
Following in such big footsteps is not all intimidating for Underwood. “I feel the most comfortable on stage. I started my career doing local dinner theater in high school,” Underwood told ABCNews.com, adding that he studied theater at Carnegie Mellon University. “I’m grateful my film and television career took off, but every opportunity I get to get back on the boards in front of a live audience, I jump at it.”
“It’s Broadway, it’s Tennessee Williams, it’s ‘Streetcar,’ it’s Stanley — it just made too much sense not to do it,” added Underwood, known for “The Event,” “Dirty Sexy Money,” “Sex and the City” and his Globe-nominated role in “In Treatment.”
What makes this production of “Streetcar” different from most others is its multiracial cast. Underwood plays opposite two-time Tony nominee Daphne Ruben-Vega (“Rent”) as Stanley’s wife Stella, Ari Nicole Parker (“Soul Food”) as Stella’s sister Blanche DuBois and “The Wire” actor Wood Harris as Blanche’s suitor Mitch.
“It’s an idea whose time has come,” said Underwood. “Some people think Williams would be turning over in his grave, but that’s so not the case.”
In fact, Underwood said the first all-black production of “Streetcar” took place in the early 50s and since then Williams and his estate have given his blessing to other colorful casts.
There’s also an historic accuracy to having a multiracial cast within the play’s New Orleans setting, Underwood said, pointing out that it’s highly possible the DuBois sisters were part of the city’s free people of color who owned plantations and slaves of their own.
“It’s not hyperbolic or gimmicky to do this play with a multiracial cast. It’s extraordinarily authentic,” he said, adding that he only recently learned by doing the show “Who Do You Think You Are?” that his four-times removed great-grandfather was a free man who owned 200 acres of land in Virginia.
The only change made to the script involved dropping Stanley’s last name, Kowalski, since Underwood is obviously not Polish. The play also opens with a “second line” funeral procession common to New Orleans and features the music of Grammy-winning jazz luminary Terence Blanchard, a native of the Crescent City. (Underwood won his Grammy in 2009 for best spoken word album, “An Inconvenient Truth.”)
Buzz has been steadily building for the show and Underwood, who’s already been touted for a Tony nod. The awards-predicting website Gold Derby listed Underwood as one of the top contenders for a Tony this year.
“Blair brings a totally different texture,” producer Stephen Byrd told ABCNews.com. “He takes it to another level.”
Underwood first wanted to play Brick in Byrd’s other all-black Broadway production, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” four years ago, but the role went to Terrence Howard. Nonetheless, Underwood went to see the show and ran into Byrd in the theater lobby. That’s when Byrd told him he wanted to do “Streetcar” in a few years and would Underwood be interested. “And here we are,” said Underwood, referring to the Broadhurst Theater, where “Streetcar” will run for 16 weeks.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” turned out to be the highest-grossing play on Broadway in 2008, the year it opened. Underwood is hoping the same for “Streetcar.” “I know there’s an audience dying and hungry for this kind of high quality work with actors they recognize,” he said.
As for what’s next, Underwood has his hands in a number of projects, including a clothing line for K&G Fashion Superstore and the release of the fourth installment of his Tennyson Hardwick mystery series, “South by Southeast,” written with husband-and-wife duo Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes. On the big screen, he can be seen in “Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day,” the second installment of Bishop T.D. Jakes’ franchise, out later this month.