Civil Liberties

Black Death of a Salesman is not just a Before/After riddle puzzle on Wheel of Fortune


To mount an all-black production of a "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 investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans. It is an assault on our presence, and our difficult but honorable history in America; and it is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large.

This circa-1996 declaration by the playwright August Wilson leads off John Lahr's New Yorker pan of a new production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman with Charles Dutton (you loved him as TV's Roc) playing the celebrated protagonist Willy Loman, a salesman who dies in the course of the play. Lahr seconds Wilson's emotion, writing: "Wilson proves to have been prescient; the experiment doesn't work, for the same reason that staging an all-white production of one of his plays would be folly."

I haven't seen this staging, and I believe the only live theat'r I've seen in the last five years was something where my kid played a water molecule. But Wilson's and Lahr's remarks are so far from dispositive they're posterior equus. Is the argument that Arthur Miller's dramatic milieu is richer in specificity than Shakespeare's?

Too late in life I have learned the joy of not joining fights that began before I was born, so I hesitate to note that there was a time when casting a brother in Hamlet was a controversial approach to Old Swanny's works. Self-styled rebels like Orson Welles and Joe Papp took pride in epatering lay boozhwa by mounting all-black productions of Julius Caesar and the like. (According to Errol Hill and James Vernon Hatch's A History of African American Theatre, black and white critics united in criticizing the way "kitchen sink" accents ruined the illusion that the actors were actually Plutarch's version of ancient Romans as written by a sixteenth-century Englishman.)

But leave aside Shakespeare; leave aside James Earl Jones in The Cherry Orchard; leave aside even the great movie Carmen Jones. Could you imagine anybody saying, "To mount an all-black production of Neil Simon's Laughter On the 23rd Floor 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…"

In fact, Mister Pulitzer and Cowardly Lion Jr. are so off base, I'm going to pull a Joel Siegel and give this Death of a Salesman a sight-unseen rave:

Dutton's incendiary combination of rectitude and narcissism, which brought unexpected power even to thankless supporting roles in the likes of Alien Cubed and Menace II Society, here allows him to reveal new dimensions in Willy Loman — a character we went into the play thinking had already been picked clean of all possible interest long ago. Walk, don't run to the Yale Repertory Theater and see this show. And above all don't listen to critics blinded by racial tension. In another few years, audiences will have shown — again — that they have more imagination than playwrights and critics give them credit for. (Whether they'll still be watching Death of a Salesman or anything else by Arthur Miller in that glorious future is a trickier question.)