It’s been a long time coming, but a change has finally arrived on Broadway, where Black actors are playing Willy Loman and his family for the first time.
This historical staging of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which opened at the Hudson Theater on Sunday, finally captures the full seismic shock of this modern American classic. But it takes a while to feel the tremors in a production that sacrifices precision for fluidity.
The revival, which originated at London’s Young Vic theater, often gets in its own way with elaborate maneuvers that detract from the work’s emotional core. And the non-color-blind cast of black-and-white actors inevitably raises questions of race and history that the play stubbornly leaves unanswered.
At its best, however, this production brings heightened societal awareness to a troubled family drama that’s already unusually socio-politically astute. A 21st-century Miller would no doubt approve of the progression of his evergreen critique of the American dream.
Wendell Pierce (best known for his work on The Wire) and Sharon D Clarke (lauded in last season’s Broadway revival of Caroline or Change) reprise their promised performances of Willy and Linda Loman. These performers, rising in tragic stature as the play nears its harrowing conclusion, make the production inevitable.
The New York troupe includes Khris Davis as Biff and McKinley Belcher III as Happy – Willy’s two sons, one a runaway golden boy haunted by his unrealized promise, the other a compulsive womanizer unable to fulfill his teenage illusions to give up. André De Shields, still riding high after his Tony-winning triumph in Hadestown, practically hovers as Willy’s brother Ben, a character who enters the play on a cloud of surreal memories.
Without in any way overstepping the boundaries of the role, Clarke transforms Linda into the linchpin of the drama. Her portrayal of a woman who stands by her husband while his life is being ruined is done with such a wrenching tenderness that, for the first time, Miller’s tragedy belongs to Linda as much as it does to Willy.
Of all the cast, Clarke is best able to maintain her realistic footing in the changing terrain of Miranda Cromwell’s production. Pierce, less sure at first, gains power as Willy’s inner devastation unleashes the play’s cathartic power in a flood of tears that sweeps away all obstacles in its path.
In London, the production was co-helmed by multiple Tony winner Marianne Elliott, one of the most bankable writers working today. Cromwell and Elliott set out not simply to recast The Loman Family with black actors, but to reimagine the drama as a work of theatrical jazz.
Miller had considered naming the piece “The Inside of his Head,” a hint that “Death of a Salesman” isn’t built on a cement foundation of realism. This is a work of memory, oscillating between past and present as Willy is eventually cornered by reality to confront the shame and disappointment he’s tried to hide under a lifelong rampage.
However, Cromwell treats the piece as if it were carved entirely in air. Anna Fleischle’s scenic design only allows for a minimum of set pieces that fall in from above and outline the various settings. By incorporating live music as a theatrical softener, the staging risks turning “Death of a Salesman” into a fun house with a range of expressionistic effects that only the great De Shields can pull off in style.
During production, the actors not only have to bear the location, but also the political and historical context. Some fuzziness is inevitable in a production that can’t pinpoint its precise relationship to Miller’s lower-middle-class Brooklyn.
Bernard (Stephen Stocking), the serious boy who lives next door to the Lomans, is certainly a throwback to the old neighborhood of the playwright’s youth. He and his father, Charley (Delaney Williams), are played by white actors, making it more complicated to understand these characters’ more affluent backgrounds.
There is a suspicion that the relative wealth of these neighbors is a legacy of white privilege. But Miller sets up the contrast in the households to highlight the distorted values Willy cultivated in his sons.
Willy and his boys make fun of Bernard for being a hard-working nerd. His diligence and earnest respect for the rules make him a loser in their book. Young Biff is not only a winner on the sports field, but also with the opposite sex. When his athletic scholarship is jeopardized by a bad grade in math, he seems less worried about the consequences than the worried Bernard
As adults, Biff and Happy suffer the consequences of their father’s salesman faith, who preaches that looks are more important than substance. In contrast, Bernard, who becomes a successful lawyer, shows what hard work and deferred gratification can do even in a country rigged against the little guy.
The production throws out provocative ideas, but then refuses a close scrutiny of their relation to the actual play. We are not meant to dwell in too much detail on the historical challenges facing a black family in late 1940s New York.
Still, there are times when the production seamlessly expands the playwright’s vision. When Willy (in his own words) is thrown away like the peel from an eaten orange by Howard (Blake DeLong), his callous young white boss, the cruelty of capitalism is amplified by the heartlessness of racial exploitation and oppression.
The obsequious obsequiousness with which Pierce’s Willy rushes to retrieve the lighter that Howard dropped on the floor speaks volumes about impotence. Yes, Willy defies his own advice to Biff to never show inferiority. But hierarchy in America – be it racial, economic or a combination of both – cannot be wished away.
“You have to watch out for a person like that,” Clarke’s Linda sadly tells her sons about their father. Her words add additional pain when applied to a man who is expendable not only because he is old and mentally ruined, but because he is black in a hegemonic white culture.
But these implications cannot be fully elaborated here. “Death of a Salesman” is not an August Wilson play. The story is treated impressionistically. And there’s only so much gospel singing infusions can say on a subject that the author hasn’t considered.
Nevertheless, the disturbing power of the piece remains. The father-son conflict between Pierce’s Willy and Davis’ Biff is at once universal in its pattern and freshly particular in its pathos.
Even more striking is the way motherhood is no longer relegated to second place in Miller’s drama. Thanks to Clarke’s heartbreaking brilliance, she finally gets the role of Linda.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-10-09/death-of-a-salesman-broadway-2022-review-wendell-pierce In 2022, how this ‘Death of a Salesman’ plays on Broadway