The “Death of a Salesman” that opens tonight on Broadway begins and ends with the people around Willy Loman literally singing the blues — the music that turned the bitterness and exhaustion of the African American experience into something powerful and beautiful. The hope for that same kind of vital transformation is surely what is behind the casting of Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman, Sharon D Clarke as his wife Linda, and other Black actors as Willy’s family, in this sixth Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s modern tragedy about an ordinary American.
Unlike some past Willy Lomans, Pierce is not a hunched-over ghostly figure, but a man with the same imposing physical presence as Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire, the role for which Pierce is best known.
Similarly, anybody who saw Sharon D Clarke in last season’s “Caroline or Change” is aware of her powerhouse singing, and her gift for vivid characterization.
These two formidable talents do give largely invigorating performances, and the recasting of the Lomans as a Black family certainly offers a fresh take on a play that’s been steadily produced since its much-acclaimed Broadway debut in 1949. But for all the boldness of the reimagining, and the stellar track record of so much of the cast, “Death of a Salesman” is a disappointment in several ways.
The change in the race of the Loman family is reflected in the music and in some trivial changes to the text (Willy’s high school football star son Biff now wants to go to UCLA rather than the University of Virginia, because UVA did not admit Black people in 1949.) But the change is not trivial for the audience; it changes the context. When we see the restauranteur Stanley setting up a private dining room for the Lomans, we no longer discern special treatment for a pal, but an effort to keep them out of sight of his white diners. When we see Willy’s boss Howard treat him so dismissively, it may no longer be just because of his age.
Racism has become an unspoken but unmistakable factor in Willy’s failure to achieve the American Dream (a much stronger factor than the unspoken antisemitism against the implicitly Jewish characters in the original.)
But there are a couple of stumbling blocks to this change in perception.
It is ahistorical. An African American Willy Loman in 1949 would not likely have shared in the post-war expectation of affluence and achievement in the mainstream, if you believe James Baldwin, who wrote, in The Fire Next Time, “you were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”
The lack of historical credibility is exemplified in the decision to cast white actors for most of the roles outside of the members of the Loman family. The woman with whom Willy has a sordid fling is white. To engage in an interracial dalliance at a time when such an affair could get you jailed or worse seems like an unlikely risk for a man like Willy to take, given the safe path he has traveled since he long ago gave up the idea of an adventurous life like that of his father and his older brother Ben. If one can accept the premise, though, it adds a provocative dimension to Willy’s character, and possibly some heft to the feeling of betrayal that Biff feels when he discovers the affair. It’s harder to suspend disbelief for the other white characters, especially Willy’s boss Howard.
We are evidently meant to understand how Willy as an African American man has to make his way through a predominantly white world and its crushing racism. But this casting creates a world of intimate interracial relationships that make the racism feel not as crushing as it actually would have been. To pick the most nagging example: The play is still set in 1949 (as the program informs us) and Willy tells his boss Howard “I’ve put thirty-four years into this firm” – which means that Howard’s father Frank hired Willy in 1915. It would be easy for the audience to accept that a Black-owned firm would hire a Black salesman in 1915 (presumably to drum up business from a Black clientele.) It requires considerably more mental effort for us to accept as realistic that a white-owned firm would do so.
Arthur Miller never intended “Death of a Salesman” to be seen as a work of naturalism; it’s largely from Willy’s perspective. Miller’s initial title was “The Inside of His Head.”
By most objective measures, Willy at age 60 has led a solid, middle class life: a house in Brooklyn with just one more mortgage payment to go; a long-time marriage and two healthy adult sons; a steady job with the same firm for 34 years. But from his perspective, he’s a failure. Willy wants more; he wants to make his mark. So he is dissatisfied with everything he has: He routinely puts down his wife; he expresses disappointment that his sons don’t have successful careers; he complains about the house and the neighborhood it’s in; he resents not being promoted at his job. As the play begins, he has just returned home after aborting a sales trip, afraid that he might crash the car, as he has done several times recently. “I’m tired to the death. I couldn’t make it. I just couldn’t make it, Linda.”
The Willy of Miller’s play shares the collective ambition and self-deception of post-World War II America, which renders as inadequate anything short of Success. It’s an attitude slyly and smartly embodied in Anna Fleischle’s set: Everything is insubstantial, with door frames, window frames and furniture hanging by wires. They lower onto the stage when needed, and just as easily fly back into the space over the stage, out of reach.
Yet, both the staging and the direction meant to indicate Willy’s interior life go too far. At one point, the houselights abruptly turn on, followed by a flash of thunder and lightning on the stage (sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, Tony nominee for last season’s Macbeth; lighting design by Jen Schreiver, Tony nominee for A Strange Loop.) This evidently is to show us the storm brewing inside Willy’s mind. Unlike past productions, Willy’s mind is no longer just full of regrets and memories. He now appears delusional to the point of psychosis. Willy is hearing voices.
The delusion inspires some over-the-top moments in Pierce’s performance, which is otherwise generally forceful but nuanced. Other performers do not fare as well. Only Pierce and Clarke are holdovers from the British version of this production, which originated at the Young Vic Theater and went on to a run at the West End, co-directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell. Cromwell takes solo credit as director of the Broadway version. The cast now includes the wonderful actor André De Shields, a picture of elegance and grace, who feels miscast as the ghost of Ben Loman, Willy’s rugged rich adventurer brother. Willy’s sons are played by Khris Davis as Biff and McKinley Belcher III as Happy. Davis gave a fine performance in “Sweat,” Belcher in “A Soldier’s Play”; both were outstanding as rival boxers in the 2016 Lincoln Center production of “The Royale.” In the early scenes of “Death of a Salesman,” they effectively sketch their characters — Biff still trying to find himself, still angry at his father; Happy a happy-go-lucky “philandering bum” (as his mother calls him) still trying to win the approval and attention of his father. But in the later scenes their performances fail to keep our attention, which, given the actors’ track record, I’m going to put on Cromwell. There’s lots of yelling in this production, and directorial gimmicks (such as literal flashbacks where the characters freeze for a moment as if in a snapshot) and a repetitiveness in the middle, all of which makes the three hour and ten minute running time – half an hour longer than the 2012 Broadway revival – feel overlong.
In his famous 1996 essay “The Ground on Which I Stand,” August Wilson said that mounting an all-Black production of “Death of a Salesman.. is to deny us our own humanity…it is an insult to our intelligence” — a comment that John Lahr quotes (at more length) in his negative review of just such a production at the Yale Rep in 2009, an experiment he considered “folly.”
I don’t agree that such an effort is inherent folly. But at the end of this “Death of a Salesman,” having just heard that final song, I momentarily wondered whether a less ill-fitting experiment could have been achieved by imagining a Black Willy Loman in an original musical adaptation.
Death of a Salesman
Hudson Theater through January 15, 2022
Running time: Three hours and 10 minutes with one intermission
Tickets: $58 to $297
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Miranda Cromwell (originally co-directed by Cromwell and Marianne Elliott)
Scenic Design by Anna Fleischle; Co-Costume Design by Anna Fleischle and Sarita Fellows; Lighting Design by Jen Schriever; Sound Design by Mikaal Sulaiman; Hair Design by Nikiya Mathis
Original music by Femi Temowo. Musical Coordinator: John Miller
Cast: Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman, Sharon D Clarke as Linda Loman, Khris Davis as Biff, McKinley Belcher III as Happy, Blake DeLong as Howard/Stanley, Lynn Hawley as The Woman/Jenny, Grace Porter as Letta/Jazz Singer, Stephen Stocking as Bernard, Chelsea Lee Williams as Miss Forsythe, Delaney Williams as Charley, Andre De Shields as Ben Loman.