South Coast Rep's All-Black Death of a Salesman
In a preview last week of South Coast Repertory's production of Death of a Salesman, the Los Angeles Times' eminently thorough and cerebral Mike Boehm resurrected an incendiary quote from legendary African-American playwright August Wilson. "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 investigation from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans," Wilson said in a 1996 address at Princeton University.
Charlie Robinson, the African-American actor portraying Willy Loman in SCR's mostly all-African-American production, isn't convinced. "As much as I love August, it's the one thing I disagree with him about," he told Boehm. "I think you can grow by playing this role. If it's an African-American cast, the audience will say, 'We all have the same problems. We go through the same things.'"
Based on this rather astounding production courtesy of director Marc Masterson, both Wilson and Robinson are correct.
On one hand, it seems weird to see the Great American Tragedy of White Middle-Class America set in late 1940s Brooklyn featuring an African-American family. Though Jim Crow wasn't perched atop the Empire State Building, this was still Plessy v. Ferguson-era America, and a violent race riot in Harlem in 1943 and the furor over Jackie Robinson breaking in with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 are just two notable examples that NYC wasn't exactly colorblind. It's also weird hearing black characters punctuate their dialogue with words such as "pal" and "champ" and "slugger" (let alone a black kid being called Biff . . .).
On the other hand, Miller's writing is so universal, the strength of his examination of the broken spirit of Willy Loman so human, his questioning of the American Dream so trenchant and contemporary, it's pointless to get hung up over skin hue. White, black, Chinese or Laplander, people are people, and the power of this production resides in that simple, salient fact.
Robinson (recognized more for his work as court clerk Mac on the TV show Night Court than his superlative career onstage) is a triumphant Willy Loman. Though shattered, self-delusional and apparently in the throes of early-onset dementia (he's only 63), Robinson's Loman bubbles with volcanic rage. That anger manifests in taking out his frustration and unhappiness by barking at his long-suffering wife (a splendid Kim Staunton) and his two sons, the prodigal Biff and the philandering Hap. Yet, in those moments when Willy reveals himself as so sad and overwhelmed and disenchanted at the sum of his life, he's also incredibly sympathetic. The brilliance of Miller's play lies in that, for the first time by a major playwright, a most common man was afflicted with the same sins of pride and ego as kings and princes and men of great status and authority. Robinson's ability to convey his small man's great tragedy and to still remain likeable and accessible is a marvel to watch.
As the vessel imbued by Willy to live the life he was too tentative to explore, Chris Butler (as the oldest son, Biff) delivers a deceptively powerful performance. The one character in this play who winds up truly understanding himself, Butler seems to casually tread water for most of the play, but when he finally boils over, we feel the roiling tempest that has been massing beneath Biff's façade. In the often-overlooked role of Willy's youngest son, Hap, Larry Bates is also multilayered as the eternal peacemaker, looking up to both Biff and Willy, but just as trapped in the web of delusion that hangs above the household. The main supporting characters are also effective. But the fact that the one genuine prick in this play, Willy's boss (Tyler Pierce), who unceremoniously fires him after 34 years with the company, is white does infuse the scene with a veneer of racial significance.
Masterson's production, while containing some interesting lighting effects (courtesy of Brian J. Lilienthal) and a subdued but fitting score (from composer Jim Ragland), comes close to minimalist. Michael B. Raiford's backdrop suggests the towering apartment buildings that have steadily enclosed the Loman household over the past 30 years, but other than a couple of beds and a vintage refrigerator, there are no permanent set pieces. This underscores that the majority of this play, which includes repeated flashbacks, often happening at the same time Willy is in the present, takes place in his muddled and frantic mind.
As with any decent Salesman, this production reveals Willy Loman as symbol, a victim of the American mantra that if you don't succeed in business, you've really achieved nothing, and once you're longer useful in that business, you're unceremoniously discarded. But what is remarkable about this production is that Willy plays such an active role is his own destruction. This sacrificial lamb isn't led to slaughter by the oppressive force of American Capitalism as much as he follows the path formed by his own decisions. As his wife achingly implores her sons in the first act, attention must finally be paid to this man. Based on the virtuoso performance of Robinson—as well as those around him—the saddest part of this Salesman is that Willy Loman rarely paid attention to himself.
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