In 1996, the late, great double Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning American playwright August Wilson famously said “to mount an all-black production of Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own cultural investigation from the cultural ground in which we stand as Black Americans”. He was delivering the keynote speech at the Theatre Communications Group annual conference at Princeton University’s McCarter Theatre Centre.
The seminal speech, called The Ground on Which I Stand, addressed questions of race, diversity and cultural identity in American Theatre and was a catalyst for months of debate. Some white people were very angry. But Wilson was unapologetic on his viewpoint – “it is an assault on our present, our difficult but honourable history in America; it is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large”, the speech continues. It’s an understandable position – at the time Wilson was writing, he and his fellow black playwrights found their work sidelined in favour of their white contemporaries.
Fast forward a couple of decades and the Young Vic Theatre has just opened its very own eagerly anticipated production of Miller’s most famous play. It’s not an all black cast but it does feature an entirely black Loman family, led by American actor Wendell Pierce and Willy Loman and Sharon D Clarke as his wife, Linda. Arinzé Kene and Martins Imhangbe complete the clan as sons Biff and Happy.
It started with an idea and an invitation. About three years ago the Arthur Miller Estate contacted Marianne Elliott to ask her if she’d like to direct Death of a Salesman with a black Willy Loman. Elliott was stunned, admitting that these sorts of opportunities usually go to ‘some big cheese director’. She jumped at the chance but was also interested to take the idea further. Initially, the other characters were going to be played by white actors but Elliott wondered what would be the effect if the character Willy Loman wasn’t just played by an actor who is black but if the entire Loman Family was African American.
Elliott flew to New York to run a series of workshops over a couple of days to test the concept. The workshop proved successful – it seemed almost perfectly possible to honour both the original script and the social and historical context of the time with an African American Loman family. The only issue was Biff’s university. In 1949, Biff wouldn’t have been able to go to the University of Virginia because it was not accepting African American students at the time so that was changed to UCLA – alma mater of Jackie Robinson, the first African American professional player allowed to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era.
Elliott realised early on that this piece, this way, was bigger than her vision. It presented a perfect opportunity for Miranda Cromwell to step up from associateship. Cromwell and Elliott previously worked together on award winning productions of Sondheim’s Company and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America – it was Cromwell who temporarily relocated to New York to open the latter show on Broadway. “It feels like an really exciting time to be revisiting some of the classics that are so well loved and so well known”, she says. “And this play is so phenomenally written. I was so stunned and surprised when I was reading it – just by changing the viewpoint and the perspective from which I am looking at the text it becomes a new creature. It makes you view the text afresh”.
Cromwell is familiar with the August Wilson speech, and speaks eloquently from both sides of the debate. “It’s not that I wholly disagree with the argument”, she says. “I mean, it’s essential that we have new stories that are written from [a black] perspective, that we don’t only rehash old plays and try to do them from that perspective because then that’s just a further erasure of the narrative. However, I would say if you flip the narrative and say only the only people who are ever allowed to speak this text are old white men, for me, then that seems incredibly reductive”. It’s undoubtable that Miller’s play gains something profound with this concept. Adultery is a betrayal in any circumstance, but the optics of a black man cheating on his wife with a white woman in 1940s southern America raises the stakes, it increases the tension – the consequences are more devastating. In Cromwell and Elliott’s production, lines ping and pop in places where they have before been unremarkable. Biff’s quip about not ever being in a jury but appearing before them carries an unbearable weight; when Willy unceremoniously ejects his scantily clad mistress out of the hotel room and she says ‘I hope there’s nobody outside’, she is clearly threatening him in a way only a black man of the time would understand.
“August Wilson’s thing was always [the American theatre industry makes] white theatre for white people in white theatres, Elliott adds. “What he particularly disliked was to cast somebody who was, say, African American in a part that was written as white American and to ignore their race. That’s what he didn’t like – the eradication of the identity of that actor. But that’s not what we’re doing. We’re making it specific – the Loman family is African American, everybody else around them is white. And we’re not asking the audience not to see the colour of their skin – we are specifically asking them to look at it”.
When it came to casting the lead role, Wendell Pierce was the only choice. Cromwell and Elliott compiled a list of everyone they thought could play the role on both sides of the Atlantic, and he was at the top. It was as simple as that. Elliott confesses she wouldn’t have pursued the project if he had said no. Watching him take on the role of Willy Loman, it’s easy to see why – his performance is epic. Pierce’s CV lists over 30 years’ of not only big and small screen successes but theatre, too. It’s perhaps less known on this side of the pond that Pierce started his career treading the boards. After graduating from Julliard in New York, he worked three seasons at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. He also worked at the New York Shakespeare Festival. He has performed in countless regional theatre productions and his Broadway appearances include Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money and August Wilson’s Piano Lesson.
It’s surprising, then, that it’s taken him over three decades to make it to London for his theatre debut. “It’s very difficult for American actors to come to London. British actors could come to America because you could come as a company. It was very difficult for us to come here as individuals – you had to be a named actor. So if you weren’t a name, a star – someone recognisable, it was very difficult. Unless you moved here and stayed here”. Some might say Pierce achieved that status long ago but he is unpresuming. It’s clear that his knowledge of how difficult to work in London it was at one point makes this job even more special for him. “Now that I am here, it says something about where I am in my career”. This, he says proudly.
Black actors seldom get a look in when it comes to the classic canon. Miller and the like are usually cast with white actors by default. Pierce knows this all too well. This is the first time in his entire career that he has performed in a Miller play. “This is a rare opportunity – and that’s why I jumped at the opportunity. We actors are students of human behaviour – we study what precipitates certain actions and one of the best playwrights to ever investigate that was Arthur Miller. That’s another reason I jumped at the opportunity”. His curiosity comes at a price, though – he describes how it has been impossible to avoid investigating certain aspects of himself as he began to understand Willy Loman, before joking about needing to have therapist on call for the duration of the run.
One of the many reasons Pierce makes a perfect Willy Loman in Cromwell and Elliott’s production is that he is from the American South. He was born in New Orleans in the early 60s to a teacher mother and WWII veteran father. His parents were alive in the time of the play and he was raised in the years that immediately followed that time. It’s a very specific experience he brings to the role. Is it exhausting that part of his responsibility in this production is to be an authority on blackness behind the scenes, an educator, as well as an actor? It’s notable that co-directors Cromwell and Elliott are both British women, mixed-race and white respectively. It’s a stark contrast to a key theme in the play: the psyche of the American black man. Pierce has the energy of a person who just takes things in their stride, and this conflict is no exception. “That dynamic is with any project” is his response. “It may have been a little more weighted in this, because I know I had the experience myself. But the first thing I said to Marianne – she mentioned her insecurity about this when she first contacted Pierce – is that no one should deny you the right to direct this play in this interpretation. I said, ‘you’re a director, I’m an actor – we’re gonna bring our chops if you don’t know anything’”.
Pierce also has some things to say about that August Wilson speech. The two of them knew each other and he considers Wilson a revered colleague (Pierce produced Wilson’s Jitney off Broadway and his Radio Golf on Broadway before Wilson died in 2005). He relates to and agrees with Wilson’s perspective on colourblind casting. “Let’s be specific”, he says. He’s talking about the motivations for casting black actors in these roles. In the instances where race is not specifically written into the role, black actors should be cast – but there should be a specific reason for doing so. “Wilson believed the perspective of the African American was not the subset idea of any other people; it is a specific cultural contribution to the human diaspora and that aesthetic is what August was saying should be revered because there are people out there that do not have respect for our contribution to the world, and do not have our best interests at heart so they’ll not only deny our input, but try to erase it”. In his attempt to protect his heritage and history he simply was saying to black people: you don’t need the validation of white folk – don’t seek it.
On the other hand he believes Wilson was contradictory. “His contradiction was that he had all these young artists and playwrights saying ‘I ain’t gonna put my shit in competition, I don’t need the New York mainstream theatre community – and in the meantime August was producing his shit on Broadway’. And now he has a named theatre there. So that was his contradiction”
There is a school of thought that says once you have published a piece of writing, it no longer belongs to you. It’s free to be interpreted at will by whomever chooses to read it. Any kind of art that is created and released into the world is not met at the artist’s point of creation but at the audience’s point of experience. Pierce agrees, “our perspective on the play is not on the dole. It actually illuminates the piece on another level. It’s not at the expense of the play – it broadens the scope of it. All of the issues of the American dream being disappointing and capitalism not feeding itself is there. So when you see an African American family in this play, it illuminates even more the desperation of of the situation. The more specific you are, the more universal you become’.
The Death of a Salesman is on at the Young Vic Theatre until 13th July. It’s sold out, but £10 rush tickets are released every Thursday at noon. More info here.