An American in London

Tennessee Williams wrote Not About Nightingales in 1938, but it never made it to the stage. Sixty years later, the play is finally getting the attention it deserves. Following a world-premiere run at London's Royal National Theatre, the show has its U.S. premiere this week in Houston; it's a co-production of the RNT, Moving Theatre and our own Alley Theatre.

Ironically, it took a British actress, Vanessa Redgrave, to "discover" this quintessentially American script, which Williams considered the best of his first four plays. At Redgrave's insistence, Maria St. Just, the executrix of Williams's estate, scrounged through the playwright's papers looking for the lost work. One day, as Redgrave sat waiting for a bowl of soup, St. Just threw the script onto the actress's kitchen table, saying, "There you are, Tall Girl!" Fast-forward five years, throw in Trevor Nunn, director of the National Theatre and one of the western world's most innovative directors, and we Texans have ourselves a once-in-a-blue-moon theatrical event.

James Black, a La Porte native and the only Alley resident actor involved in the production, says it was a formidable project, adding that he was awed when he began rehearsals at the National Theatre -- an enormous complex comprising three stages and employing more than 700 people. "The first read-through was terrifying, in a word. We had TV cameras and still cameras. The BBC was there, CBS was there...." Black pauses, then continues in his warm, sandy voice. "Trevor said, 'We're going to crack open this tomb and smell the air of another era.' It was electrifying to hear Williams's words being spoken aloud for the first time and hear the characters come to life. Normally, when you're dealing with a classic playwright, you're in the shadow of past productions, but here was an opportunity to start from scratch, make the footprints."

Nightingales, Black explains, was "based on an actual prison riot that took place in Philadelphia. The ringleaders were put in a steam room, a cell that had radiators lining the walls. They were in there for 36 hours with temperatures around 140 degrees. Four of them were cooked alive. It's a genre piece, like a Warner Bros. prison movie. But it's full of poetry, passion, and it's full of a young man's outrage and indignation."

Black's one of six Yanks in the 18-member cast (which includes Vanessa Redgrave's brother, Corin). So there he was in London -- smart and talented, but still just a guy from "two-street" La Porte -- rehearsing a play by one of America's greatest playwrights at the Royal National Theatre under the direction of Trevor Nunn. What was that like? "It was great being an American in England doing an American play. That helped ease the intimidation factor. They had to lean on the Americans for definitions. There's a lot of prison slang, and they were curious about [Franklin Roosevelt], the WPA. They're as enamored of us as we are of English actors."

It also helped, he says, that he has a leading role -- Butch O'Fallon, who's "like the alpha-dog prisoner, the leader" -- and that the play itself is so American in its nature. "It's very violent.... The set is just huge: giant, steel, with working cells and guards all over the place, and whistles being blown and the clanging of the cell doors -- people screaming and fighting, almost literally in your lap."

-- Lee Williams

Not About Nightingales previews at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday. The official opening is at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. The Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas, 230-1600. Preview tix: $22; regular tix: $35 and $37 (228-8421).