Wendell Pierce: In Death Of A Salesman

Wendell Pierce: A successful revival of a classic play, like a good cover song, unearths new treasures hidden in the original and inscribes them forever. As with Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” or John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” any future version of Arthur Miller’s 1949 Death of a Salesman will be evaluated against its new Broadway revival, an import from London’s Young Vic.

This Salesman isn’t just different because the Lomans are Black (the idea has been tried before, most notably in a 2009 production at Yale Rep starring Charles Dutton, though never on Broadway). Miranda Cromwell, reportedly inspired by Miller’s initial title, The Inside of His Head, has portrayed most of the play as a discordant fever dream, with flying set pieces, presentational acting, lighting, sound, and music emphasizing the work’s inconsistencies over its continuities.

Miller’s art was moderately expressionist, and Salesman is not exclusively kitchen-sink realism. No sink, only a mini-fridge. Most productions—like the previous two on Broadway, directed by Mike Nichols and Robert Falls—have a more lyrical tone. Cromwell uses a jagged technique. She opens with exact lyrics as the cast sings “When the Trumpet Sounds.”

They soon leave melancholy Linda (Sharon D Clarke) alone on a small platform under designer Anna Fleischle’s dangling window frames, seats, and tables. At the same time, her tired old salesman husband, Willy (Wendell Pierce), enters from a doorway, likewise emerging from the darkness. The Salesman’s universe will form and break apart as quickly as family, place, and position. Linda informs Willy, “Life is casting off.” This Salesman is selling hard. Cromwell’s stylizations are overdone.

Mikaal Sulaimanthat’s sound design, Femi Tomowo’s music, and Jen Schriever’s lighting are often appropriately disorienting. A few transitions blossom beautifully into quasi-musical numbers (and why not, when you have Andre De Shields in your cast? ), but a few of the director’s gambits play like just that, gambits: The main memory is split as though flipping through a vintage slide carousel; a clarinet poorly reproduces an offstage character’s voice.

Cromwell and her colleagues perform the original’s dissonant notes virtuosically. This emphasis on the work’s underlying discord, it seems, allows the one new, booming chord, not in Miller’s original—race—to reharmonize the whole play’s meaning. A purely period interpretation would ask what a Black businessman, citizen, and mortgage holder faced in 1940s America.

Is Willy a white company’s Black store rep? Who is cluttering his Brooklyn vista and consequently lowering his home value—white gentrifiers or Black migrants from the South? Miller’s play has nothing to say about these problems, and it’s not about racial prejudice. Willy tells Linda about the day he lost his anger and punched a competitor salesman who made a slur in his hearing. In the original play, the offense is “walrus”; in this version, it echoes to the back row.

This implicit resonance is omnipresent in the new production—not enough to shift our understanding of Miller’s goals, but enough to reshape some familiar beats. It’s almost too easy to count how the Black Lomans (free band name proposal) change the sound and feel of countless moments without changing a word.

Willy’s line about a “law in Massachusetts against this” as he speaks to a white mistress; wayward Biff’s recurring run-ins with the law; Willy’s puzzlement at how much harder he has to work than “other men”; his invidious comparisons with his laconic white neighbor, Charley, whose brainy son Bernard vaults past his sons once high-school football is no longer the playing field.

Some situations have horrifying new meanings. A white employer expects Willy to light his cigarette; a waiter brings the Lomans to a rear room for privacy. The show’s metaphorical approach pays off in the lead performances: Pierce, a roly-poly tummler with a unique blend of exhaustion and exhilaration; Clarke, whose blue-flame simmer could burn down the theater; McKinley Belcher III’s callow, charming Happy; and Khris Davis’ manic-depressive man-child Biff.

This quartet’s scenes run as quickly as in any Salesman I’ve seen, but Davis and Clarke give the mother-son link a heartbeat of truth in a household of lies. Miller’s original condemnation of hollow, acquisitive American ambition meshes with Cromwell’s race-conscious reframing.

Willy believes that “the greatest country in the world” favors the smooth operator over the hard worker, the golden boy over the midnight oil burner. The hard truth is that it rewards neither if you’re Black—or if it does, despite that fact—and Black liberty and empowerment begin with this awareness. Biff’s epitaph: “He didn’t know who he was.” Cromwell’s Salesman has him.

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