A month ago, a group of Chicagoans met in the glorious Hyde Park Arts Center, noshing on delicious food from The Nile, to read the words of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. As part of our salon reading series, we sought to unpack and explore the well known text by casting a few of our favorite actors to breathe the roles anew: Terri Lynne Hudson as Laura, Abbas Salem as Tom, Lars Ebsworth as Jim, and Haley Bolithon reading stage directions. Tamara Rozofsky was originally cast as Amanda, but unfortunately had to step down last minute so our managing director Elana Elyce heroically cold-read the role.
We arrived at this play when we began discussions in rebooting our salon reading series. I reached out to a few of our favorite actors with the simple question: What are you dream roles? What's on your actor's buck list? Terri Lynne Hudson put Laura on the top of her list and all of us as a group collectively gasped -- WHY HADN'T THIS HAPPENED YET?! We sat down with Terri to talk about her journey with this story, what was important to her about the retelling and cast the reading from there. What transpired in September was several dreams in the making.
Once there was time to catch their breaths, we asked the artists and our staff a few questions about their experience...
How, if at all, did this experience change your understanding of the play and the characters within?
"There is SO much of a difference between "here is what I think it would be like if the world perceived me as ___" and "he is what my life is like because the world perceives me as ___" and although there is a lot that can be achieved by actors via craft and exercise, getting a Laura whose characterization and subtext just live in her body because that's her body, and getting a Tom whose sexuality isn't just implied by the lack of women in his life makes the play more visceral and more real to me. Also, having the family not be white speaks to the lived stories of southern black wealth and class structure culture, which is real and documented but not discussed or portrayed very often at all."
- Terri Lynn Hudson, actor - Laura
Since I had never seen or fully read it, it was pretty much just a new play for me. The only thing I ever had full knowledge of is Laura, her disability and that she had a caller who wasn't that into her. And the menagerie of course. Everything else, brand new.
- Elana Elyce, Chicago Inclusion Project staff member and actor - Amanda
To be honest! That was the first time I actually payed attention to the script. I had always surpass the script or half-assed was engaged in it to the point I would forget what the actual show was about. This experience kept me engaged and I walked away thinking “I’d see THIS production of the show.”
- Jess Vann, Chicago Inclusion Project staff member
"Jim is so totally into Tom, cause why wouldn't he be - Tom is a damn dreamboat (this was my first time realizing that). I bet those shoebox poems are GOOD. Jim is also a self-centered egomaniac who wants everyone's attention all the time. "Look at my shadow across the wall" has never had any meaning for me and this time I was just like, UGH. JIM. OF COURSE. YOUR SHADOW IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING HAPPENING RIGHT NOW. Jim is also super sad and sympathetic in his disappointed high school hopes, but mostly I was like COME ON JIM, THIS ISN'T ABOUT YOUUUUU. Somehow I always just thought the guys at the factory didn't like poets, since Tom has always been a sexless automaton, and this time I finally understood he's up against homophobia. I love Amanda and want her to stop absolutely everything she's doing and do other things, but I also kind of get what she's saying. She looks for every flipping avenue to find a path through for her family, and I was legitimately worried for Amanda and Laura when Tom left- how were they going to keep the lights on? Keep the apartment? What options do they have?"
- Meg Harkins, Salon Reading producer
"I usually see interpretations of Laura that come from a place of shame, often complying with other character's opinions on who she is. But Terri Lynne Hudson's strong and self assured Laura, was a complex heroine that was easy to cheer on. Her subversion of the meek traits typically associated with Laura gave the production a lens to examine the other characters' and how their perspectives mirror the well meaning although ableist perspectives that are prevalent today. The insistence of no one being allowed to say the word "crippled" in the house takes on a different meaning when we don't have an able bodied actor pretending to understand what that journey is like. We rooted for her more than pitied her and the action of the play became Laura overcoming the ableist world she lived in instead of her "inability to overcome her differences" which is often played as such an awful experience."
- Arti Ishak, Chicago Inclusion Project staff member
"I thought I hated this play. But I’m realizing that what I didn’t like was the productions I’d seen, or the analytical interpretations presented in academic settings. In all of my previous experiences with this play, the characters were portrayed/presented as white, and the focus was largely on Laura featuring white, abled actors performing disability, white actors digging their teeth into Amanda’s florid, extravagantly-worded monologues in grandiose Southern dialects, and Tom invariably cast as robustly straight-passing (and white). And so I came to think of this play in these terms, by these standards: Laura the tragic cripple, trapped in her own glass menagerie with her overbearing mom and, oh, her quietly gay brother here on the side laying it all out for us. They will never escape. It’s all Amanda’s fault (and also kind of Laura’s, through no fault of her own, by having had the misfortune of being born with a disability). After seeing/hearing the play read by our cast, I have a COMPLETELY different experience and understanding of this magnificent play, and feel strongly that much of its true depth, power, dynamics and resonance are completely missed by the way this play has been traditionally cast.
I truly heard Laura’s VOICE for the first time, and it wasn’t the voice of an awkward, delicate shut-in, overshadowed by disability theatrics-- it was the voice of an atypical thinker, perhaps neuroatypical, perhaps not… but a dreamer, a quiet listener, clear-eyed and present in a way that is simply hers. Tom accepts it; Amanda denies it; but Laura is simply just herself, and therefore the ultimate tragedy of the play is her mother’s failure to embrace who she naturally is. Portrayed by Terri-Lynne Hudson, an actor with spina bifida, Laura’s disability is simply there, a natural part of the performer's instrument and personal life, but by no stretch of the imagination her singular, defining trait. In this incarnation, it is easy to see how Jim becomes drawn to her-- he’s a dreamer, too, and her finely-honed gift for seeing deeply into the beauty of things to find their inner life proves irresistible to him. That our Jim was trans threw into sharp relief the performative nature of Jim’s masculinity-- initially off-putting, then endearing as his interactions with Laura reveal the vulnerability behind them. When he abruptly halts their connection, it is actually HIM you feel sorry for-- he has tasted, perhaps, being truly himself for just a moment with Laura… and can’t handle it, choosing instead to continue with a masquerade that may or may not ultimately pay off for him."
- Steph Diaz, Chicago Inclusion Project Staff Member
"I loved the choice to ask an actress with a disability to play a character who is in denial about her daughter's disability. Every person's experience is different, but this particular parent /child relationship resonates because is is so relatable. There is often deep pain and even shame felt by the parents of children with disabilities. I have always been loved and encouraged by my parents, but in some ways I have lived along side the idea, in my own mind, of the able-bodied person I might have been. A deep wound developed in me, early on, in knowing that my body does not behave like other bodies and that countless professionals have been consulted to change it's behavior.
There is a cultural tendency to approach the disability of a child through the lens of parents. Glass Menagerie, follows that pattern. Most of what we know about Laura come from what others observe and feel and fear about her. I wonder how different the play would be if the audience was given an opportunity to share her perspective on anything."
- Tamara Rozofsky, actor
Did anything take you by surprise?
"The interaction between Jim and Laura here was really interesting, because Jim's referring to his girlfriend also being Irish and Catholic, like he is, I feel was deepened by Laura not being white...there's a shadow of "I could have gotten past or loved a lot of other things about you but I wouldn't have been able to marry outside my culture and race so..." Giving Laura multiple marginalizations in this world I think underlines the desperation of her situation. I also really loved seeing Amanda brought to life with a vivacious obliviousness to how she energetically overpowers her children in her space and I felt it gave us so much to work from and react to."
- Terri Lynn Hudson
"Tom cast and played as openly, unapologetically, and matter-of-factly gay from the get-go gives this script teeth I didn’t know it had: it infuses Tom’s every word with sharp, cutting intelligence and withering wit, making him more like a ticking time bomb than a willing, repressed participant/prisoner of maternal psychodrama. This Tom gives the audience credit for knowing what’s up, and creates the sense that Amanda is not in denial or ignorance of Tom’s gayness… but, rather, that they’re locked in a stalemate of mutual understanding and conflict, neither side willing to cede completely to the other’s wishes, but nonetheless bound together by their love for each other, their love for Laura, and the shared trauma of the father’s departure. Casting non-white actors in these roles also bumps up the economic and social nature of Amanda’s anxiety, and hearing her use slurs we normally only hear white characters in this time period utter casts an entirely new light on the circumstances and struggles and internalized oppression that inform her psyche: we understand Amanda. Hearing a black actor with natural reserve and gravitas (like Elana Elyce) in this role added a depth and quiet urgency to Amanda’s arc that I found far more formidable than any other iteration I’d seen before… because it is something quite different to be a single black mother in the U.S. than a white one, in the 1930s or any era."
- Steph Diaz
"One of the most intriguing moments for me, is the part when Amanda comes back from the conversation at the business school. As she is speculating upon the dismal future ahead, she shifts to the pronoun "we" as though Laura's fate is her own. It is, in the same moment, so deeply empathetic and so unintentionally and extraordinarily passive-aggressive!"
- Tamara Rozofsky
"This isn't so much of a surprise as it is a confirmation that marginalized actors can bring an extraordinary amount to texts by "canon authors" like Tennessee Williams. The pain, the suppression, the fight for survival so inherent in the words are automatic givens. The scenes pop, the characters come to life in a way that make it necessary to still tell these stories, just in new ways..."
- Emjoy Gavino
Stay tuned for details about our upcoming readings and events...!