Most people hear the name Tennessee Williams and immediately think of A Streetcar Named Desire, the Southern playwright’s sultry 1947 Broadway hit that catapulted a 24-year-old Marlon Brando to fame. Last Tuesday, a cosy crowd at The One in the Only Café on Danforth Avenue were introduced to a less familiar side of the playwright’s work.
“All of us must sadly face the fact that we are makeshift arrangements,” reads Toronto actress Leanna Brodie. She stands before her audience holding the personal letters of Williams in her hands. “P.S. I wrote this in a depression, but it is now past. I am sunny again!”
The evening of letter reading is part of The Tennessee Project, a collaboration between nine Toronto theatre companies that next month will bring Tennessee Williams’ one-act plays to seven different Toronto neighbourhoods. From May 1 to 7, each production will rotate between venues in the Annex, Greektown, North York, Cabbagetown, Roncesvalles, St. Clair West and Leslieville, so that each neighbourhood will have the chance to see all of the plays.
Seven different evenings of Williams in a week is already an ambitious undertaking, but the organizers of The Tennessee Project are taking it even further, bringing Tennessee to Torontonians through free local events like this night of letter-reading.
Over the course of the evening, we hear Tennessee’s thoughts on procreation, food, depression and of course all of the latest gossip — circa 1940 — from London and New York.
“Dear boys, your auntie Froufrou is having a gay old time,” reads actor David Coomber. Some letters, like Coomber’s, offer a window into Williams’ homosexuality, or what he referred to as his “unconventional mode of living.” The names of other gay writers of the time — Isherwood, Capote — are sprinkled throughout.
Williams’ correspondence is thoughtful, poetic and hilarious — chatting afterwards, many in the audience commented on how far written correspondence has fallen since his time.
Where Williams likens the appearance of an unwanted house guest to “a salty finger stroking a raw wound,” today many would likely communicate the same sentiment by texting.
“You really get to see the mind at work,” says Brodie. “He wasn’t saving these gems for some play — he actually thought that way.”
Someone offers her a drink. She smiles: “Well, I think a bourbon would be appropriate.”
For more information, visit tennesseeprojecttoronto.com.