Even With Race in the Mix, This ‘Salesman’ Delivers

New shades of friction and menace emerge between characters played by black and white actors. Yet far from overshadowing Arthur Miller’s larger message, of the elusiveness of the American dream, such twists reinforce it.

Joan Marcus
Blake DeLong and Wendell Pierce in ‘Death of a Salesman.’ Joan Marcus

In 1996, one of the greatest and most important playwrights of the 20th century delivered a speech in which he referenced the work of another. “To mount an all-black production of ‘Death of a Salesman,’” August Wilson said, “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 investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans.”

It’s impossible to know if Wilson, who died of cancer in 2005, might have been swayed in any way by subsequent developments, particularly the emphasis on identity politics and social justice of recent years. I’d give anything, though, to be able to hear his take on the lovely and shattering new production of “Salesman” that just opened on Broadway, following a rapturous reception in London.

Originally directed by Marianne Elliott, who just won her third Tony Award for a revival of “Company” that changed the gender of that musical’s leading character, and a fellow Brit, Miranda Cromwell, who is helming the Broadway staging, this revival of Arthur Miller’s most famous play does not technically feature an all-black company. A few supporting roles are played by white actors — among them, notably, the least sympathetic characters: Blake DeLong is cast as Howard, the spoiled, callous businessman who accelerates Willy Loman’s downward spiral by firing him more than 30 years after he was hired by Howard’s father, and Lynn Hawley plays the floozy whose dalliance with Willy costs him the approval of his cherished older son, Biff. 

Crucially, though, Ms. Cromwell and Ms. Elliott, who left Miller’s text intact, have not turned “Salesman” into a play about race. Had Willy Loman been a black man living and working in 1949, he would have had additional challenges — as Wilson, whose plays traced the lives of black Americans through that century, could have attested. Miller, whom Wilson admired, attacked racism in “The Crucible” and elsewhere in his writing, but in “Salesman” the target is capitalism, or, more specifically, the notion that success can always be earned by gumption and hard work, and the abandonment of those who, like Loman, do not succeed. 

That’s not to say race and its rich, tragic role in our social, economic, and cultural history are ignored in this production. A note in the program imagines how the Willy Loman presented here — played by an alumnus of “The Wire,” Wendell Pierce, with a heartbreaking mix of stubborn force and fragility — could have existed due to the Great Migration that saw Black Americans leave southern farms and relocate to northern cities like Brooklyn, where the Lomans reside, between 1910 and 1940.  

A view of ‘Death of a Salesman.’ Joan Marcus

The show begins and ends with a rootsy, gospel-tinged hymn, Femi Temowo’s “When the Trumpets Sound,” and music coordinator John Miller inserts bluesy strains of guitar when Loman retreats into the reveries of his more contented past. His interactions in these sequences with sons Biff and Happy, respectively played by Khris Davis and McKinley Belcher III, have a heightened, surreal quality — enhanced in part by Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design, which evokes a tape rewinding, but also by the hyper-stylized performances of Messrs. Davis and Belcher, which nod purposefully and chillingly to racial stereotypes that informed vaudeville and burlesque.

New shades of friction and menace also emerge between characters played by black and white actors. I have never found the scene in which Howard humiliates a desperate, pleading Willy, or the one where a teenage Biff discovers his father’s infidelity, more excruciating than I did here. Even Loman’s interaction with Charley, the mensch of a neighbor who repeatedly tries in vain to help him — movingly played by Delaney Williams, a white actor (and another “Wire” alum) — seems a little more fraught.

Yet far from overshadowing the play’s larger message, of the elusiveness of the American dream, these twists reinforce it. Ms. Cromwell and her actors never lose sight of the personal demons that also make these characters eternally compelling. Mr. Pierce makes the delusory denial, foolish pride, and self-loathing that manage to co-exist in Willy Loman harrowing while also finding tenderness and humor in his dialogue with Messrs. Davis and Belcher, who robustly mine the flaws that have kept their own characters from moving forward.

The woman who selflessly tolerates and sustains these three men — Linda Loman — is granted all the warmth and steel she requires by Sharon D. Clarke, the British actress who made an incendiary Broadway debut in last season’s revival of “Caroline, or Change,” and is even more wrenching, and winning, here as Willy Loman’s wife. It’s Linda, with a little assistance from Charley, who most plainly gives voice to Miller’s moral conscience, telling us, famously, that “attention must be finally paid to such a person” as her husband.

Mind you, this “Death of a Salesman” runs more than three hours, including an intermission. Trust me, though: It will compel your attention, and your conscience, throughout.

The New York Sun

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