Editor's note: This segment was rebroadcasted on Jan. 12, 2022. Find that audio here.
When playwright Arther Miller released “Death of a Salesman” in 1949, the play received Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and brought grown men to their knees.
The play followed Willy Loman, a man whose self-esteem revolved around his success as a salesman in the 1930s. When those sales slipped, so did Loman’s grip.
Now a new production has recently opened on Broadway with one difference: Willy Loman, his sons, and his wife, Linda, are all played by Black actors. It’s a first for the Broadway show and marks a notable difference in the play’s interpretation.
Loman is played by “The Wire” and “Treme” star Wendell Pierce and he says the role isn’t validation for Black actors — they’re all over Broadway. But the role is different for him, and he’s still learning.
Many people who come see the “Death of a Salesman” have never read the play, Pierce says. He met one man who resonated with the character Biff, Loman’s oldest son.
“There was a Black man who stopped me on the street last night and said, ‘Thank you. You told my story. I am Biff.’ He literally said that to me: ‘I’m Biff,’” Pierce says. “And I said to him ‘If you still have your father, call him.’”
On other actors he’s seen play Willy Loman
“I have seen Lee J. Cobb, the original actor who played the role on Broadway. I saw B' rian Dennehy, I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman. I saw the television version of Dustin Hoffman.”
On whether he thought it was possible that he could play the role
“I had never considered playing the role. Part of it was just the insecurity of a journeyman actor who I considered myself [to be]. Part of it is something that I share with the character Willy himself. [Willy’s wife] says it: ‘Even a small man gets tired like a great man.’ I feel like I’m a little boat looking for a harbor in my own career, so that was the epiphany for me.”
On identifying with Willy Loman
“When you’re playing a role like this, especially at my age, there’s a self-reflection that comes with the work. And I have to consider: Are my best days behind me? What have I created when it comes to family and friends and the wealth of spirit?
“So this was a great challenge and a great gift because it gave me time to sit and reflect and really delve deep into those same considerations that Willy Loman is thinking about. But also learn from the play because it’s a cautionary tale. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes Willy makes.”
On the debate over if the Loman family should be played by Black actors
“To do this as a color-blind ‘Death of a Salesman’ would be an insult. We’re not color-blind in our production, we’re color-specific. It says something when I [as Willy] have an infidelity with a white woman in 1932. It says so much about the pressure he’s under that he would risk his life — which is what he does when he has that infidelity — just to get an opportunity to sell his products in that store.
“That’s an interpretation; that’s to elevate and amplify the play. I am, as any actor, as any artist, coming to do ‘Death of a Salesman.’ And there was never a debate as to whether or not Lee J. Cobb should do it because he was a big man, who Arthur Miller didn’t want. He wanted a small person, he wrote ‘a shrimp.’ But he saw Lee J. Cobb and he said ‘I loved his talent’ and cast him.”
On the play taking on a different meaning now that the characters are Black. In the scene where Willy has an affair with a white woman, he is caught by his son, Biff.
“[One scene] that comes to mind the most [is] when the woman is standing there and says ‘I hope no one sees me in the hall.’ She is a white woman saying to two Black men that she is underdressed, a year after the Scottsboro boys' trial. ‘I hope no one sees me like this in the hall.’ And that is an unveiled threat.
“[The waiter in the restaurant gives Willy and his sons a table in the back saying,] ‘Mr. Loman, you’ll feel more comfortable back here.’ The microaggression, the expectation of [Willy’s white boss] that I pick up something that falls off his desk.”
On Willy Loman being yelled at by his boss, Howard
“It’s degrading, it’s humiliating, it’s infuriating. It’s enraging and propels me. It is moments like that are just amplified knowing that I can’t do anything. In that moment, I think how, in that time, you weren’t supposed to look a white man in the eye.
“I am trying to avoid getting fired, desperately doing everything not to rock the boat, not to infuriate him even though he is humiliating me. We have to remember this is a time where you had to step off the curb for a white person to pass.”
On the idea that Loman can’t accept his successes, despite having a home, a job, and the ability to travel
“[That’s] the hubris of the play. Willy Loman, a man in pursuit of this materialism, cannot see that he is a wealthy man. [He has] a wealth of love, a wealth of family, and he couldn’t see that because he was prescribing another barometer by which to judge himself. And that’s the lesson that if he could only take the blinders off and see how wealthy he actually was.”
On actor Sharon D. Clarke, who plays Willy’s wife Linda
“Sharon D. Clark is a rock. I say it at the beginning of the play, she is my foundation and my support on and off stage from the very beginning. She is emblematic of so many women who have held together families, generations, in spite of all the violent obstacles placed in the lives of Black folks. I cannot imagine doing this role without her.”
On the play’s sustained personal impact on him
“This is not only a high-water mark in my career but is one of the highlights of my life. I take this with me to my dying day. And in the words of Arthur Miller, ‘There’s a certain immortality in the theater not given by books or monuments, but the knowledge an actor takes with him to his dying day that on a certain afternoon in a dusty theater, he cast a shadow of a person that was not himself. And uttered an unsung heart song that the common man feels but never utters he gave voice to. And with that, he joins the ages.’”
This segment aired on October 11, 2022.