Tennessee Williams’ memory play, The Glass Menagerie, contains many autobiographical elements. Williams’ mother had a personality disorder and his sister was said to be mentally fragile; it’s a deeply personal piece.
Williams set his play in 1930s America, in St Louis. In Femi Elufowoju Jr’s production, the sound of Louis Armstrong plays softly on a gramophone in a corner of Rebecca Brower’s cramped apartment set. The Wingfield family has to clamber up and down a rickety fire escape to hang their laundry. Arnim Friess’ warm, sepia-toned lighting reminds us we are in a memory.
What comes across less clearly is the purpose of this reimagining which places an African American family at the centre of the narrative. When gentleman caller Jim (Charlie Maher) – a white man – tells Laura Wingfield (Naima Swaleh) – a black woman with a physical disability – that the way to overcome her inferiority complex is to simply think of herself as superior, it doesn’t ring true.
Contextually, we’re in the time of Jim Crow Laws and, though St Louis is geographically mid-western, it’s historically a southern state. Segregation was rife: it’s difficult to fathom that a black Laura and a white Jim would have become closely acquainted at all – let alone in high school.
August Wilson famously criticised the practice of casting black people in plays written specifically with white people in mind. It’s not that it can never work, but it needs to be more carefully handled than it is here. The ensemble cast is great, the performances strong, but Elufowoju Jr’s production doesn’t seem to have considered precisely what it wants to say.