There are two major London productions currently exploring African American experience. They are August Wilson’s King Hedley II and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
“What? Who? Huh?” goes up the collective cry of those who know Miller’s play and think of it as, to use Wilson’s own words, a work “conceived for white actors.” His point was that such a play is therefore the wrong vehicle to represent African American experience. He said that in 1996. Then, in 2009, on the occasion of an impressively cast all-black Salesman at Yale Rep starring Charles S. Dutton as Willy Loman, the critic John Lahr backed up Wilson with the point that an all-black Salesman is no more viable than an all-white Wilson play.
The experience of these two demographic groups simply do not match. Loman’s “sense of expectation and entitlement” was not reflected in African American experience in 1949, the year the play is set, wrote Lahr. And for this reason, the experiment did not work.
Yet this latest experiment works very well. It stars The Wire’s Wendell Pierce in his London stage debut as the bewildered, tired travelling salesman whose reeling mind attempts to make sense of how a life of hard graft failed to land him the status and money he so obviously deserves.
Co-directed by Marianne Eliottt and Miranda Cromwell, it boasts a superb design by Anna Fleischle. The Loman family household serves as a kind of 3D map of Loman’s mind. Furniture and windows are suspended in mid-air, then drop into place as Loman’s brain involuntarily conjures scenes from the past. Most of them include his once-promising, now under-achieving sons Happy and Biff, played by the excellent Martins Imhangbe and Arinzé Kene, who both capture the sons’ unquestioning adoration of their father and also their contempt.
Fresh from her Olivier Award-winning title-role performance in Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, the imperious Sharon D. Clarke is superb as Loman’s loyal wife Linda – the female rock in a family comprised mainly of weak men. And Pierce is in full command of his monumental role, his Loman brimful of pride, drowning in confusion and coiled with fists clenched when his image of himself is exposed as delusional.
So how is it that this black Salesman succeeds where others may have failed? Well, crucially this is not an all-black production. Instead, the Lomans are a black family attempting to make their way in post-War America. And it is this context that allows the play to resonate with African American experience. Take that scene in the office with Loman’s boss Howard Wagner (Matthew Seadon-Young) – one of the hardest to watch in the canon. It sees the dog-tired Loman, who, in his 36 years working for the company, opened up new territories, pleading for a desk job and an end to life on the road. In the moment Wagner drops his pen and Loman bends to pick it up for him – a submissive act he earlier warned his sons never to do – it is not only the weight of Loman’s humiliation that hangs heavily, but the legacy of slavery. It is as if the muscle memory of African American experience overrides Loman’s mind. And in that sense it is the whites in this production that make Miller’s play black.