Lisa Portes on displacement, belonging, and the American Dream

Acclaimed Chicago director Lisa Portes visited Cal Shakes this spring for auditions and meetings in anticipation for her upcoming production of The Glass Menagerie. She sat down with Alicia Coombes, Publications Manager, to discuss her preliminary ideas and thoughts—what follows is edited and condensed for clarity.

Alicia Coombes: Why The Glass Menagerie, right now? What make this particular production special?

Lisa Portes: When Eric asked me about it sometime last summer, I was very excited about it. I’ve always loved Williams, and what I love particularly about this play is that it’s about a group of people who are displaced in their time and in their place.

In terms of [the matriarch] Amanda, she came from an elite family in the south, ran off with the wrong guy, and now finds herself a single mother in St. Louis in the middle of the Depression. Laura has a disability, Tom is gay, and there’s no place for any of them in the world that they live in. Yet they’re all dreamers. Amanda’s dreaming of past glory, Laura miniaturizes herself into a world where a unicorn lives with horses and “they all get along perfectly, Tom is dreaming of a world where he can be who he is—actually all of them are dreaming of a world in which they can be who they are, but who they are doesn’t fit the American Dream.

So I was interested in that idea, and then the election happened, and then I became even more interested in the idea of people who are displaced against an American Landscape. In this production, Amanda is played by an African-American woman. The story that we’re working on is that the kids’ father was Mexican (in the play he runs off to Mexico), and so we’re pushing what Williams was already doing by exploring who is displaced in this landscape right now, in a very real way. What I love about doing it here is that we are literally doing it against an American landscape: it’s outside, up against the California hills, which I love.

In terms of telling the story, [I’m interested in] who has access, who belongs, who is trying to find their way in a world that is often hostile to who they actually are. All of the characters are dreaming of a world in which they can be their authentic selves. I already felt that way, and after the election it only became more pressing, especially with the rhetoric that was coming out of the campaign.

AC: Regarding your casting choices: is this something you’ve wanted to explore in The Glass Menagerie in particular?

LP: All of my work puts women or people of color or women of color at the center—it’s just part of my personal mission as a Latina director, moving stories of women and people of color to the center. So when I started thinking of The Glass Menagerie, I began to imagine who Amanda might be. The tradition of African-American debutantes dates back to the turn of the last century, early 1900’s. So I began to think, she could exist: Amanda as an African-American woman could exist, and that she ran off with the wrong guy (and that he left her) puts her under even greater pressure to try to set things right. I became interested in that story; I became interested in her husband being Mexican (because as described he leaves them all and runs off to Mexico). The idea of that coupling, and the children that came out of that relationship, became very interesting to me.

AC: Dramaturgically, because you can’t change any of Williams’ words, are you running into anything that’s problematic, that you and the actors will need to solve in the rehearsal room, with regard to the text?

LP: Amanda as an African-American woman is tricky perhaps for some. On the one hand, folks might think there couldn’t possibly be a black former debutante in the U.S. in the 1930s.

But the thing is she could and did exist. Our cultural brainpan mistakenly associates color with class, and assumes that color always [signifies] working class, poor, impoverished. Elite African-American culture has existed primarily invisibly since the late 1800s. One of the first black millionaires was actually a woman, Madame C. J. Walker! It’s important to know that, yes, an African-American Amanda Wingfield who came from an elite upper-class community in the South in 1910’s is absolutely viable.

On the other, Amanda says some racially problematic things in the text and they are indeed problematic. Every elite class has its appropriate and inappropriate ways of thinking of the folks that enjoy less privilege. There is colorism in the world of this Amanda Wingfield. What we do know is elitism in any culture comes at a cost, and she’s not above it. I don’t want Amanda’s problematic elitism to be the obstacle for ever casting a brilliant black actress as Amanda.

Another question I’m exploring in this production is: how do we reimagine who Americans are when we think of The Glass Menagerie? How do we reimagine the classic American landscape? How do we re-envision who is at the center of our classical canon in this country? That’s exciting to me in thinking of who Amanda could be, and who her kids could be, and who the Gentleman Caller could be.

AC: How do you see this play engaging with the idea of “The American Dream”?

LP: There have always been marginalized people in this country. The relationship to the American Dream is tenuous. Things have been shifting toward greater inclusivity and an awareness of equity and inclusivity, certainly in the American theater. I thought as a nation we were all moving towards greater equity, inclusion, and access to everything the American Dream has to offer. I mean, it hasn’t been perfect, God knows; when I was imagining this play, Obama was still our president and we were still deporting people, there was still racism, the Black Lives Matter movement began under his presidency. BUT then came this wave of campaign rhetoric, which deliberately targeted, othered and threatened very specific groups of people . And immediately post-election, we really began to see who got a seat at the table. Literally, who’s in the Cabinet? Well, the false sense of safety about an inclusive future certainly shattered.

So when it becomes as profoundly and visually apparent that certain people get access and certain people don’t, despite the fact that we’re all Americans. When you see folks now literally in fear for their lives and their livelihoods and their children—well many folks’ connection to the great American Dream is quite fragile. That to me is the center of the fragility in this play.

AC: Amanda started with way more choices than she ended up with.

LP: Yeah, as an African-American woman, her class buffered her, but since she no longer has class in this play, she no longer has access to those resources. Her access to the American Dream as a single black mother in the 1930s in the north, Laura’s access as a young disabled woman of color, Tom’s as a gay man of color—they’re all compromised. Jim, an able-bodied, straight man of color in this production, has found a way in, actually. He has a kind of optimism, but he also understands what it means to be othered. He’s not just a dorky guy going “all you gotta do is believe,” in this production he speaks to Laura from a place of connection.

AC: How are you addressing The Glass Menagerie as a “memory play”?

LP: I think when we think of Tennessee Williams we have this cultural archetype of gauziness, and sentimentality—and Tennessee Williams says himself, through Tom, that it’s a sentimental play. But I’m keyed more into the idea of memory. For myself and the designers: when you think about how you remember, you don’t remember “gauzily.” If you think about how you remember, you remember this detail on a blurry landscape, but this detail is very distinct.

So two things have affected the design: the idea of displacement, and the idea of memory as a memory-scape on which certain objects—pieces of clothing, people—appear. So you’ll see in the design that it’s quite an abstracted space like the plane of memory. It starts blank, and is formed as Tom begins to form his memory and as Amanda begins to try to shape the world around her. The actors are pulling pieces onto the set, so by the end you get a sense of most of the pieces, but they’re the pieces as Tom remembers them. The clothing they wear is not realistic with costume changes: he remembers this sweater that his mom used to wear, or that hat. We’re really using that idea of memory, instead of gauzy memories. It’s not like Salvador Dali, because that’s surreal, but think of that landscape, and objects on that landscape.

And then displacement: everything moves, all the pieces move, there is no resting place for anything, the father’s portrait isn’t hung on the wall, it kind of is picked up by Tom and then is set against a wall, so nobody has a place, everything can easily come out from under them.

What Annie’s come up with is a quite surprising [scenic] design in that it’s just not what you expect when you think of Williams. There’s nothing on the stage when you come in. You see pieces on either side, and then those pieces as they come to life in Tom’s memory, coming into the playing space.

Also, I wanted to highlight the hills behind the playing space, so we didn’t want to create a wall. I do believe that Tom shares the same space with the audience. He’s not in another space when he’s talking to us.

AC: Thanks so much for talking with me about The Glass Menagerie! I’m looking forward to seeing it as it develops. Any last thoughts for us?

LP: It’s a real science project, as I keep referring to it. Both in terms of the casting process and the design for this play plus performing outside! How do you do a four-character play on a big huge outdoor stage!? There have been a number of really fascinating challenges to try to create this Glass Menagerie— and I’m really excited to see how it all turns out! I have a series of hypotheses that we’re testing, and we’ll see, but I’m very thrilled about it. If it comes together like I think it will it’ll be a really fascinating production.

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Stay tuned for further details about casting and creative team for this production. The Glass Menagerie plays from July 5-30. Tickets available here

Lisa Portes is a Chicago-based director. She is a co-founder of the Latinx Theatre Commons and serves on the board of Theatre Communications Group.  Portes heads the MFA directing program at The Theatre School at DePaul University.

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