Update: I was informed by the playwrights' estate that I am in fact in error to make a change to this or any other copyrighted work, and so we performed The Last of My Solid Gold Watches as originally written. My apologies to all those who were offended.
This July, my theatre company, Always Love Lucy Theatre, is putting together four Tennessee Williams one-act plays in a production called "Hello to Rose".
Among the one-acts is a 1946 play called "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches". The cast is made up of three male characters: Charley Colton, a White traveling shoe salesman in his 70s; Bob Harper, a young White thirtysomething salesman, and the Porter, an elderly employee of the hotel where Colton and Harper are staying.
BUT the Porter is not named "the Porter" in the original 1946 play. He is instead called "the Negro". And the original text is peppered with the N-word and other racial slurs.
The irony is, Charley and the Porter are old-time friends, who show more kinship towards each other than Charley does to Bob Harper. Charley and the Porter have gotten to know each other well over Charley's many business trips, and have seen their lifelong friends pass away. They realize theirs is a dying breed and they are being replaced by a younger generation before their very eyes. And they may well have different feelings about that.
There are many theatre producers, directors and actors who feel that plays should be produced word-for-word as they were originally written. And there can be merit to that. Sometimes you have to, because the playwrights' estate decrees that when you are applying for performance rights.
No one on our creative team wanted to say those slurs, and we felt we could convey the show without resorting to that. The play retains all of the normalized racism without the slurs. In fact, I would say the audience can relate to the play even better now, without patting themselves on the back that, since we do not use the N-word as a whole, racism is over.
It is far from over.
Even calling the character the Porter -- by his occupation, not his name, which is never mentioned -- is demeaning. I know that firsthand. In 2005, as a personal trainer, I trained a woman three times a week in her doorman building. The doorman refused to learn my name, even when I said, "Please let her know Saima is here." He would look me in the eye as he picked up the phone and said "Your trainer is here." Later, he shortened it to "Trainer's here." As if my role in their lives was my name.
That's just one part. It is more than just the name. As recently as last year, I trained a multimillionaire in his townhouse on the Upper West Side. His third wife, nearly 30 years younger than he, did know the names of all the staff she hired to do the housework in the home she never left because she did not have a job herself. Moreover, all of the female staff were women of color, whom she made wear uniforms. Uniforms are for businesses, to build brand identity to a revolving customer base. Who needs a uniform in their own house, unless it is to exert power and make sure someone knows their place?
Charley addresses the Porter as "boy" even though they are the same age. That, too, is not regulated to the past. Last fall, when I assisted at a memorial service for the husband of a friend of a friend, the widow called me "that girl Saima" in front of her (all white) guests. I am 43 and I was the only person of color there. Guests looked uncomfortable and many tried to help me in the kitchen or strike up conversations with me, which the widow would put a stop to by giving me a new order. Keep in mind I could see everything that needed to be done because a kitchen in a Manhattan apartment is the size of a mailbox. Nothing is that far away.
Still, I wondered if I did the right thing changing words to a play that is not mine. Then I realized something, in a parallel to the production's inspiration.
The "Rose" in our title is Tennessee Williams' sister and primary childhood friend. In 1943, their strict mother Edwina authorized a lobotomy on Rose which led her to spend the rest of her life in institutions until she died in 1996. Tennessee Williams modeled almost all of his younger female characters -- such as Laura in The Glass Menagerie -- on Rose, and there is almost always a character named Rose (or Violet, as an homage to flower names) in his full-length plays.
When Edwina ordered the lobotomy for Rose, she was not concerned about the actual brain cells affected. She was worried about the sentiments Rose was conveying to their social group and if anyone would be able to relate to her. The result was misguided and tragic, affecting their entire family for the rest of their lives.
Excising the racial slurs from "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches" did not change the sentiment of the characters. Charley has still retained his generation's ways of speaking to African-Americans. Had he been real in 1946, he would have been born in 1868, only three years after the Civil war ended. He thinks his manner of speaking to people is how it is supposed to be, and truly regards the Porter as a friend. He is confused by the younger generations' ways as he sees himself becoming obsolete.
By taking out the slurs and retaining the sentiment, the audience has a mirror to see themselves in and imagine how they would relate in the same situation. They see how human nature does not change as fast as our technology, and that while we have come a long way, we have even further to go.
And I think Tennessee Williams knew that when he wrote it, which changes the play from being a timewarp to being timeless. And ultimately, isn't that what theatre is?