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Mexican Stand-off 

The Tennessee Williams Festival takes a new look at the playwright and the city through some new writing and plays

After a year in which many nonfiction books about New Orleans and Katrina hit bookstore shelves, fiction about the new New Orleans is joining it. The Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival (March 28-April 1) features many of the post-Katrina authors on discussion panels, Williams' one acts and a new play that highlights a lesser-known side of the French Quarter's best-known playwright.

San Antonio playwright Gregg Barrios brings his new play about Williams' relationship with Pancho Rodriguez to the stage during the festival. Titled Rancho Pancho, the play is actually about Williams and a couple of other men who adopted the city as their own. During the mid-'40s while Williams was working on a Streetcar Named Desire and Summer and Smoke, he lived with Rodriguez, a Mexican-American man from Texas who Williams had met while traveling in Mexico. The two were involved in a relationship for those years and remained lifelong friends. Scenes in Streetcar were lifted from their life together, says Barrios.

"Tennessee used him to create scenes," he says. "Pancho threw his typewriter out the window during an argument. In Streetcar, Stanley throws the radio out the window."

Elia Kazan, who directed both the stage and film versions, wrote in his autobiography that he understood Blanche and Stanley far better after watching Williams and Pancho feud.

For years, the notion that Stanley Kowalski was based on Tennessee's lover Frank Merlo held sway with scholars, but Barrios says that Pancho is the more likely figure and that scholars should re-evaluate the Latino characters throughout Williams work.

"Scholars have passed over it as if Pancho was a bad influence, but he was probably the best influence in his life," Barrios says. "There was this feeling that Tennessee was too good for Pancho. Tennessee was drawn to his ruggedness, the machismo."

Pancho was not referred to by name in Williams' autobiography Tennessee Williams: Memoirs. Williams instead used the pseudonym Santo, saying he could not reveal the actual name, and also referred to him with other nicknames and terms of endearment. The title of Barrios' play comes from the nickname for Williams' bungalow in Provincetown, where he also spent time during the summers of the late '40s.

"I wrote the play to make (Pancho) more than the footnote he's been made in theatrical history," Barrios says.

Barrios met Pancho's brother Johnny Rodriguez in the '70s while he was teaching at Loyola. At first, the two talked about a small town in Texas where they had both spent time, Crystal City. Barrios learned that both Pancho and Johnny, who was known to many friends as Juancho, had moved to New Orleans in the mid-'40s, and both made the city their home.

"He said that Texas and Los Angeles were much the same -- full of peons," Barrios says. "They were treated better in New Orleans. It was an international city."

Eventually, Johnny shared diaries and correspondence that belonged to Pancho, revealing much of the untold side of their relationship. Barrios developed the play based on much of that information. It debuted last summer in San Antonio, and the production at the festival features the original cast.

The Festival also presents a look at Williams' later work. Director David Kaplan, who cofounded the Tennessee Williams Festival in Provincetown and has recently completed a book about Williams' life there (Tennessee Williams in Provincetown), will direct two one-act plays that Williams wrote in 1980 (presented with another one act in Tennessee Trio at Le Petit Theatre). He's at work on another book about Williams' later writing.

"He's lived to the point where the conventional formulas of well-made theater of the '40s and '50s no longer satisfy his understanding of the world. He now understands ambiguities," Kaplan says. "He has no solutions. He's lived long enough to know that things don't resolve themselves. He's brave enough to present dramatic problems and not know the answers. This is unsettling to critics."

Kaplan has taken Williams' work to tougher audiences though. He's directed a Chinese-language performance of The Eccentricities of the Nightingale in Hong Kong and a translated version of Suddenly, Last Summer in Russia. After the first rehearsal of the play, he was confronted by a wall of reporters and a question about how Russian audiences would relate to the "controversial nature" of the play.

"I said, 'I assume you mean the issue of homosexuality,'" Kaplan says. "I told them, 'You know that Ibsen wrote the play Ghosts many years ago. The presence of syphilis in the play is a metaphor for sins of the past. In this play, homosexuality is a metaphor for the truth that everyone knows about but doesn't talk about,' and I think that Russian audiences had no problem understanding that."

Kaplan points out that Williams' work is well received because it addresses universal themes.

"In the way Shakespeare is international, so is Williams," he says. "We're so intoxicated by the music of the words, we don't lose it but the drama of the relationships between people really works on us."

Williams' gift for language is very accessible.

"There is a great lyric beauty to his work. If you hear one line of his writing, you know it's his," Kaplan says. "Even when the music is broken up, you hear it. Especially in the later plays, there's a lyricism as if it's set to music."

But Williams also worked very hard, which is sometimes overshadowed by his reputation for enjoying himself. Many may not know what a tireless writer he was. From the late '30s until the '80s, he woke up and wrote every morning, Kaplan says. "He had an unbelievable work ethic. Whatever happened the night before, he woke up, sat down and wrote. That takes amazing discipline."

Williams worked and travelled tirelessly, and spent less time in New Orleans over the years though he loved it and always felt at home here. There's a line in the beginning of Streetcar referring to New Orleans as a city in which one always hears music. Though Williams had worked on the play in several cities and over several years, it's not surprising that New Orleans became the city that animated the play for him. Though as Barrios' play suggests, there is still much to learn about Williams and his relationship with the city.

The Festival is also a literary conference and the slate of guests this year includes many authors who have published books about the city in relation to Hurricane Katrina. One panel will include Mike Tidwell, author of Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast and the recent follow-up The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas and the Coming Death of America's Coastal Cities, Richard Campanella, author of Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics Before the Storm and LSU's Ivor Van Heerden, who wrote The Storm: What Went Wrong During Hurricane Katrina --ÊThe Inside Story From One Louisiana Scientist.

Another panel will highlight one of the first published works of fiction to come out relating to post-Katrina New Orleans. New Orleans Noir is an anthology of crime stories set in different neighborhoods. Ironically, the plans for the book began in 2004, but much of the writing took place after the storm and concern crime stories set in the immediate aftermath of the storm or in the rugged landscape of recovery in the months afterwards.

Novelist Tim McLaughlin created the idea of a noir series when he pitched a Brooklyn Noir anthology in 2003 to Akashic Books. The concept was to invite both crime-genre and literary authors to contribute new, unpublished works. The idea went over well, and Brooklyn Noir III is currently in the works. McLaughlin also suggested a New Orleans Noir to his publisher and contributed a police story set in the Irish Channel to the collection. (He has been a frequent visitor since 1980 and was married in New Orleans in 2002.) There are now 12 Noir series titles and almost as many forthcoming though with some variations. Brooklyn Noir III will include all true crime stories. A portion of proceeds from the New Orleans Noir will be donated to support the public library system and K.A.R.E.S., which supports writers affected by the storm.

Akashic publisher Johnny Temple turned to New Orleans writer Julie Smith to edit the New Orleans installment. In November, just months after the storm, she accepted the job and began talking to other writers and working on her own story.

"We're all colored by Katrina," Smith says. "But I don't think these stories would have been as passionate as they are if we had done this before the storm."

Though most of the contributions were written after the storm, half of the stories occur prior to the storm and some are historical pieces. The other half are set during Katrina or afterwards, in many ways a perfect setting for a new vision of noir. The height of popularity for noir crime writing came with the novels of writers like Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye) and James McCain (The Postman Always Rings Twice) in the '40s and '50s. They created stories of intrigue, unlikely criminals plotting perfect murders, insurance fraud and crimes of passion. Post-Katrina New Orleans offered more gritty turf and less of a question of skirting the law than the problem of who or what would uphold the social order. Smith's story "Looting" waded into the complexities of citizens, cops and criminals left to fend for themselves in the days after the storm.

While many friends suggested that it was rich territory for a writer, mystery writer Christine Wiltz didn't find it easy.

"This is the grimmest thing I have ever written," she says. "I was depressed when I wrote it. Fortunately, that lifted when I was done."

Writing about what New Orleans had become was nothing like working in a fictional genre.

"Noir used to be the image of a guy in a trenchcoat and fedora," she says. "The hurricane broadened my definition. It took the romance out of it. This is hard reality."

In her story, "Night Taxi," the unpopulated, unlit neighborhoods of Lakeview become a testing ground of personal will and courage as some desperate men find themselves working out their own hard bargains.

Many of the stories in the collection dig into subjects left raw and exposed by the storm's destruction. It's a vivid series of impressions of the city in moments that brought out either the best or worst in people. As part of the first wave of fiction to arrive in the wake of the storm, it's a thrilling read and a harbinger of what should be an interesting stream of works. Though the storm has long passed, Katrina the muse is one more tortured soul who will give New Orleanians something to talk about for quite some time.

See the Web site for a full list of panel discussions, participants and events. See theater listings (p. 55) for a list of plays staged in conjunction with the festival.

click to enlarge Tennessee Williams and Pancho Rodriguez, who inspired - the character Stanley Kowalski, pose for a portrait in New - Orleans in 1979. - PANCHO RODRIGUEZ COLLECTION
  • Pancho Rodriguez Collection
  • Tennessee Williams and Pancho Rodriguez, who inspired the character Stanley Kowalski, pose for a portrait in New Orleans in 1979.


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