Culture

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

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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.)

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  1. I believe the only live theat’r I’ve seen in the last five years was something where my kid played a water molecule.

    I bet the review panning it was withering, Tim.

  2. It’s been years since I last read “Death of a Salesman,” but I don’t recall any roles in it that can ONLY be played by a white guy.

    Or am I forgetting the part where Willy Loman says “As were my Nordic Aryan northern European ancestors, I am liked, but not well-liked?”

  3. Why do you think I haven’t seen anything since?

  4. August Wilson and John Lahr are fucking segregationists.

    This attitude is offensive to an art lover.

  5. They need to get this guy to direct your kid’s next one.

    As for the black / white silliness, I certainly agree that theater should be color blind. Nevertheless, I find the idea of an Ashton Kutcher production of Raisin in the Sun to be a very, very scary thought.

  6. I saw part of a movie once, which I believe was called “Suture”, wherein two of the characters (identical twins) per played by a skinny Black actor and a chunky White one. It was disconcerting at first, but after a few minutes of them acting like identical twins, it was easy to not see the difference the actors brought to the table.

  7. In Shakespeare’s time men played all the women’s parts, and these people are worried about skin color? They need to get a life.

  8. The lead off quote from August Wilson is a classic example of all that I hate in modern criticism: Plenty of big words, meaningless pompous phrases (“specifics of white culture”, “assault on our presence”), and convoluted construction that is intended to make a dubious point – ‘The experiences of white people are not relevant to black people’ – sound intellectually respectable.

    As usual, Shakespeare said it best:
    August Wilson’s statement “? is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.”
    – Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

    Note that I do not say anything about how good or bad this particular production of Death of A Salesman may be. Just that Wilson’s statement is crap.

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

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that WoF uses puzzles; Jackpot! used riddles.

    BTW, no mention of “The New Odd Couple”?

  10. Critics are just the kids that didn’t make the cut for the 8th grade play all grown up.

    I completely agree with Aresen @ 5:52pm. The use of language to masturbate out some convoluted pile of crap with no point is annoying.

  11. I’m waiting for the all Vietnamese cast of Roots and the all dog cast of Cats.

  12. I saw part of a movie once, which I believe was called “Suture”, wherein two of the characters (identical twins) per played by a skinny Black actor and a chunky White one.

    And let’s not forget Peter Sellars’ staging of Weill and Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins in which the two sisters (Anna I and Anna II) where played by Theresa Stratas (white) and Nora Kimball (of mixed African/Asian descent).

  13. When do we get a white version of Raisin in the Sun?

  14. Baked, you beat me to it, damn you, damn you to straight to hell, you beat me to it!

  15. So, in a remake of To Kill a Mockingbird, would it matter that Denzel Washington played Atticus Finch? Or that the role of Tom Robinson would be played by Edward Norton?

  16. posterior equus?

    If you meant “horse’s ass,” I guess that would be equ?; if you meant “behind the horse”… Well, why would you mean “behind the horse” anyway?

    And I spoze you’re referring to the people, not the remarks, but that’s not what you wrote.

    Damn, Tim, your stuff is great, including your opinion here, but… Damn.

  17. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. A couple years ago I would have said “Imagine the uproar if someone put on an all-white ‘Death of a Salesman'” But now, I just don’t get it in practical terms. Who funds this shit? Who goes to see it? Why?

  18. Really, I think we can make a mountain out of a molehill either way here. I saw a production of Othello where Othello was white and everyone else was black and I thought it was a neat take. So all black or white or whatever productions of originally different race plays can be a neat directorial strategy to breath new life into an old play.

    Having said that I think a fair reading of Wilson’s comments, once getting past the pompous and overblown rhetoric, would be that rather than spending time and effort on black productions of originally white plays black actors, directors, and producers should be interested in telling about the human condition from a black context. In other words, if you are interested in developing and nurturing black theater then such black productions of white works is something of little value.

  19. i want an all black version of fiddler on the roof. “if i be a rich man…”

  20. I wanna see the all-white cast in the Blacula remake.

  21. It would be interesting to see a reversed version of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think that moment has passed for it to be culturally edgy.

    There is nothing inherently racial about Death of a Salesman. The consideration that blacks experience the same age discrimination as whites is an interesting notion.

  22. There was an all-white production of Raisin in the Sun in an episode of Strangers with Candy and it was great! Well it wasn’t technically all white- black actors were playing trees and rocks.

  23. In other words, if you are interested in developing and nurturing black theater then such black productions of white works is something of little value.

    Have to give props for trying to see the best of an insidious situation, but that is not really such a good idea. Whether it is A Raisin in The Sun, To Kill a Mockingbird, Fiddler on the Roof (in spite of the catchy tunes), or Yoknapatawpha County, the truth of the matter is that all our modern trends towards specificity over universality, as in Shakespeare & Miller where the setting is but a template often used for exotic effect, wind up being a boring as fuck waste of time.

    Pleasing these tedious critics only bankrupts the producers who take them seriously. Instead, blow some shit up, have buckets of Macbethian blood pouring down to the audience, and freaky people committing suicides right on the stage (theatrical or real, I leave it up to you), make the cleaning crews life a living hell, that is what will pack the seats.

    Sure the critics will hate you, and call you names, but who cares. They are fullofshitist ideologues with a thin grasp on reality. They want something that is ‘expansive of our sense of humanity’, or something that makes the narrative arts more complex and meaningful when even the best told tales are but a game as the bard once said.

    Stupid critics.

  24. Reading this makes me want to see a racially-reversed version of Roots (directed by Dave Chapelle, maybe.) That would be some funny shit.

  25. the all dog cast of Cats.

    You, sir or madame, are a theatrical genius.

    EJM, thanks for the correction on WoF. I always think of Laughter on the 23rd Floor instead of the Odd Couple because I was working on the 23rd floor of a building when it came out, and I thought it might be good luck to go see the show. I didn’t, the play bombed, then my career bombed. I’m thinking if I had just bought a ticket…

  26. libertymike, reversing the races in a story where race is a central point has generated one great movie that I have seen (Watermelon Man) and one probably great movie that I haven’t seen (White Man’s Burden). And I think Putney Swope should be mentioned even though it doesn’t really fit that template, just because it’s awesome.

    anarch, you should see me try to write “Romans Go Home.”

  27. 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.

    A superior production, no doubt. Surely replete with the full range of human emotion and life’s circumstance.

  28. quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus Timotheus

  29. I wanna see the all Asian cast of Days of Thunder

  30. What next? A revival of West Side Story set in Italy?

  31. D.A. Ridgely: …by any other name…

  32. All male Vagina Monologues ?
    Probably been done and could only be an improvement.

  33. 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.

    Tim, please, spolier alert next time.

  34. 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

    The more a thing makes the west resemble a third world nation, the louder Cavanaugh applauds. Big surprise there.

  35. When I read “Black Death of a Salesman”, I presume that they set it in medieval Europe, and made Willy Loman a bubonic plague victim.

    -jcr

  36. sincerely syncronistic question- what’s the buzz, can a white dude be Judas in a way off broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar, or would that be racist?

  37. I once saw a stage production of “The Beggar’s Opera,” which begins with the playwright handing out the script of his play to various beggars. Since he does this rather randomly, the very blonde heroine’s father was played by a large black man. It worked brilliantly.

    I would love to see a version of Macbeth set in Africa, if it hasn’t been done already.

  38. I would love to see a version of Macbeth set in Africa, if it hasn’t been done already.

    That sounds rather good, actually. Hell, they took Infernal Affairs, replaced the Asian cast with some Irishmen and that was good.

    Like Cavanaugh, I don’t really have a problem with this sort of experimentation. I guess you’d have to see a particular play to see if it works in a particular context.

    Sometimes anachronisms and surprising racial or gender choices in casting puts something over the top…see Samus Aran in the Metroid series. Or Nicholas Cage as Fu Manchu.

  39. I am curious,though, as to what Wilson thinks of as “the specifics of white culture” (‘white guilt,’ perhaps? All-natch pompadours? Fall Out Boy?).

  40. …is Hamlet set in Africa.

    Related: ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’

  41. anarch | May 23, 2009, 9:56pm | #
    quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus Timotheus

    Is that Latin?

  42. “anarch” is Greek.

    The rest is silence Latin.

  43. I would pay American dollars to see an all-white Porgy and Bess.

  44. Oh Wow, who would have thunk it. Can you imagine?

    RT
    http://www.real-anonymity.pro.tc

  45. I would love to see a version of Macbeth set in Africa, if it hasn’t been done already.

    I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a great Japanese version.

  46. I hear that they sometimes get Gentiles to play Jewish roles – like Christ and His disciples.

  47. All-male vagina monologues sounds awesome, but then again I’ve never seen VM.

  48. Is that what VM stands for? :-0

  49. “all our modern trends towards specificity over universality, as in Shakespeare”

    See, I’m dubious about this. Shakes had plenty of parochial smallness in his plays too (hey, I love them). Think of a classic like Dante in which a great part of it is this one dude’s revenge fantasy against his enemies…One should not give works of the past any special magic just as they should not dismiss them either. Greatness and smallness can be found aplenty in any time period…

  50. But now, I just don’t get it in practical terms. Who funds this shit? Who goes to see it? Why?

    Not to mention, who wants to argue about this shit on the internet.

  51. Each tribe likes its own culture, and gets offended when other tribes appropriate it.

    Are young white rap fans any less ridiculous?

  52. Having said that I think a fair reading of Wilson’s comments, once getting past the pompous and overblown rhetoric, would be that rather than spending time and effort on black productions of originally white plays black actors, directors, and producers should be interested in telling about the human condition from a black context. In other words, if you are interested in developing and nurturing black theater then such black productions of white works is something of little value.

    Like I said, segregation. Perhaps I should have added self as a prefix. Plays, movies, music, murals, novels … are not black or white, they are (hopefully) works of art that transcend such mundane concepts as race.

    I am “this close” to going on a rant. The main branch of the Detroit Public Library has an “African-American Biography” section. It’s mind-boggling to me that one would pick what life stories to read using such a superficial thing as the shade of the protagonists skin as criteria. It’s offensive and counter-productive if you are trying to actually achieve the MLK dream thingee.

    Victimology promoters and good old fashion bigots agree, “keep the cultures from merging, it’s bad for business”.

  53. J sub D
    I respectfully disagree. I don’t think it’s wrong to feel an affinity with a group, especially one that you are going to be lumped into anyway in life. I think it’s just fine for a member of a group to see other members succeed in an area, especially ones in which their members have historically, or even contemporarily, not had much success. So when blacks cheer Tiger Woods or when whites cheer Larry Bird I totally think that’s cool. Likewise I think it’s cool when the Irish like Joyce better than Proust for example, in part because he’s a fellow Irishman, or when blacks prefer Langston Hughes to Yeats.

    And for a black person to think about how black experiences once were rarely written about then I can see how developing black theater or such would be something of legitimate importance.

    And I think everyone benefits: as each group tells more and more about their unique take on the human experience the cumulative effect on the artistic take on the human experience is enriched.

  54. “anarch” is Greek.

    The rest is silence Latin.

    I thought you were pitching me an easy hit there, amazing coincidence that it was unintentional:

    Magnus Buchan: [heavy Scottish brogue] Why dincha just piss off, Fischer? Ya dotty wee skid mark!
    Max Fischer: Is that Latin?

    MNG, you are a good sport. My previous post was just some crazy ramblings meant to be in character for a movie with some great lines, but I had not seen in ten years.

    Max Fischer: I don’t give a shit about the barracudas, fuck it! I’m building it anyway.

  55. Morgan Freeman is Abraham Lincoln.

  56. In an interview in the March 7, 1988 New Yorker, Bellow sparked a controversy when he asked, concerning multiculturalism, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him.” The taunt was seen by some as a slight against non-Western literature. Bellow at first claimed to have been misquoted. Later, writing in his defense in the New York Times, he said, “The scandal is entirely journalistic in origin… Always foolishly trying to explain and edify all comers, I was speaking of the distinction between literate and preliterate societies. For I was once an anthropology student, you see.” Bellow claimed to have remembered shortly after making his infamous comment that he had in fact read a Zulu novel in translation: Chaka by Thomas Mofolo (an inaccuracy remains in this: Mofolo’s novel is in Sesotho, not Zulu).

  57. I’ve always considered the “all black” suffix to anything the pendulum swinging too far back from having a culture stripped from a group of people. I’m sure there are a million and one theories, but it seems like a lot of time is spent on trying to manufacture a heritage and culture rather than letting one form on its own. It’s a shame the initial culture was lost, but forcing one to appear is almost as bad as loosing it.

    (the whole American approach to the situation from day one doesn’t help either)

    The all midget cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is something I would pay to see.

    Should that be all short people cast? Or all people of limited stature cast? Or all vertically challenged people cast?

  58. Well, FUBU!

  59. I am the only one who sees the similarities between modern day “feminists” and those crying racial discrimination?

  60. “Plays, movies, music, murals, novels … are not black or white”

    except when they are: porgy and bess makes no damn sense with white actors, for example. i’ve only seen one august wilson play but it was certainly about race and class and very specifically non-white.

    wilson’s overall point makes a lot of sense, at least from his pov – retreading accepted plays takes away some effort from creating new ones. if he’s interested in cultivating new voices, such reimaginings are second-fiddle at best.

    many complain about this when it comes to the remake machine of hollywood. (pelham 123? really? dicks.)

  61. retreading accepted plays takes away some effort from creating new ones

    Meh. Maybe, but mayhap the retreads are the proving grounds.

  62. How weird. In my English class we had to read an August Wilson play (The Piano Lesson) and Death of a Salesman. I was in our school’s production of “Death of a Salesman”. I don’t think having an all-black cast would make much of a difference. Of course, a black man working a white-collar job in the 40’s might be tough to explain.

  63. You’d have to find a way to update it fifty years or so and maybe it would work.

    An English director once did a version of Romeo and Juliet with John Hurt in drag and the rest of the characters cats (voiced by humans obviously). There was at least one mouse in a non-speaking part.

    I’m looking for a copy of this, by the way. It doesn’t seem to have made it to VHS or DVD.

  64. So when blacks cheer Tiger Woods or when whites cheer Larry Bird I totally think that’s cool. Likewise I think it’s cool when the Irish like Joyce better than Proust for example, in part because he’s a fellow Irishman, or when blacks prefer Langston Hughes to Yeats.

    In sports this is understandable, since the only outcomes are that one team wins or the other team wins (and in treasonous, seditious, lawless, anti-American girlyman soccer, you don’t even get this because the game can end in a tie), so it makes sense to want your team to win.

    Affiliations like these make less sense in literature and drama. It’s not like French literature can only be great at the expense of Italian literature.

    Ezra Pound had a good complaint: that teaching “American literature” is like teaching “American chemistry” and ignoring chemistry that comes from other countries. The comparison doesn’t make total sense (because literature is full of cultural specifics that don’t translate easily), but there is some truth in it.

  65. The message at 6:02 p.m. was from me. Not sure how Pantera’s name got on it unless he’s an alternate personality.

  66. dhex (with whom I more often than not agree) writes:

    wilson’s overall point makes a lot of sense, at least from his pov

    Well, sure, but that’s the point of contention. And it might just be worth noting that Wilson was not exactly a disinterested party when it came to what plays using black actors would get produced. Hell, for that matter, Shaw spent about as much time trash talking Shakespeare as he did touting his own literary genius.

    Lahr makes the at least prima facie reasonable point that the problem with a black cast for DOAS is that the play’s underlying theme of Loman’s tragic quest for his version of the American Dream doesn’t make sense with black actors precisely because that was a dream, shallow or not, that had always been denied to Black Americans and they, that is, African Americans knew it.

    The question becomes then whether the playgoer’s suspension of disbelief can’t get around that complication, assuming of course it occurs to him at all. (It strikes me as at least possible the audience might be as oblivious to Lahr’s reviews as I am.)

    It seems to me, then, that the question remains open whether alternative castings will work even if the material in question was clearly written with some specific socio-political axe to grind in the first place. Could a revival of “The Boys In The Band” work work with the characters rewritten as straight? I can’t imagine it. But how about an all female, ‘lesbian’ cast? Why not?

    Besides, times change. The majority of African Americans are middle class or wealthier, so why shouldn’t they now be portrayed as equal victims of the ultimate banality of Willy’s dream? If anything, I’d say the harder sell would be “A Raisin In The Sun,” given its premise that home ownership is beyond the grasp of the average black American family.

    At least, I’d have made that argument a year ago.

  67. I still have a copy of the handbill for the all-Korean production of “Sound of Music” that I saw when I lived in Korea back in the 90’s. I had to bite my toungue everytime Rolf, the boy Nazi (played by Noh Tae Kim) came on stage to keep from laughing.

  68. August Wilson and John Lahr are fucking segregationists.

    So criticizing an all-black Death of a Salesman is arguing in favor of segregation? How does that work?

  69. “And it might just be worth noting that Wilson was not exactly a disinterested party when it came to what plays using black actors would get produced.”

    absolutely, though i think his interest in having new material for african-american oriented theater is probably more ideological than material.

    there is something to be said for playing with expectations, especially with older source material, and especially with race and other “hot button” jabs in the eye. but if you’re interested in helping birth a wider, culturally-specific form, then retreads are probably – at best – an easy way out. (recent reimaginings in the movie theater with the plot unchanged but the cast’s racial positions switched come to mind)

  70. I’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof two times. I really enjoyed the show. Last year I got a cheap ticket and I went, it was really a great show. I will go see it for the third time.
    http://www.ticketsinventory.co…..f-tickets/
    So I’ll be analyzing as well as enjoying the show.

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