Art, Death, and Race

A black Salesman arrives with pressing questions.

If there is any quality we should most hope did not die with August Wilson last week, it is his ability to talk frankly, sometimes furiously, about race. His masterful cycle of plays about the African-American experience is a testament to his tenacity on the subject, and he was equally passionate in conversation. He was a lifelong (and, to some, notorious) opponent of "color-blind" casting—the practice of placing black actors in roles and plays written by and for white artists; he casually mentioned to me during an interview in 2002 how ridiculously ineffectual, for instance, he felt an all-black version of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman would be. Wilson was willing to make trouble—not for the sake of attention, but for the sake of facing the truth in the name of possible growth and change.

How you respond to director Jacqueline Moscou's Death of a Salesman (through Sunday, Nov. 6; 206-684-4758), then, will depend on how much trouble you want to make with it. It's not a professional enough production to get too worked up over—Moscou has intentionally mixed amateur actors with more seasoned professionals in order to focus on the work as a community effort at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, where she serves as artistic director. Yet, she has also intentionally begged larger questions about art and race in casting Miller's Pulitzer winner with a black ensemble.

"If, in today's multi-cultural world, [a play] cannot translate to a different culture, can it be called a classic?" Moscou asks in program notes. "The question is not about a Black cast doing Death of a Salesman. It's about Death of a Salesman resonating through any ethnic group."

That may be the question, but I don't believe Moscou has provided the answer—at least not the one she thinks.

Moscou is not the first, nor will she be the last, artist to address race by conscientiously closing her eyes to it. Intiman's artistic director, Bartlett Sher, staged a surpassingly poignant Our Town last season that quietly colored every nook of Grover's Corners with a human palette closer to millennial Americana than the turn-of-the-20th-century small town of the Thornton Wilder original. I don't think Wilson would have appreciated that, either, yet I'd argue that Wilder's play seems always to have been set in an ageless void, an Everytown that can, as time moves forward, expand its borders if it means further charting what Wilder wanted to map in the first place: the fragile, devastating minutiae of daily life.

But Salesman exists in a different universe. Miller's Willy Loman, a man aggressively pursuing financial happiness at the expense of his family and sanity, is an irreversibly white Everyman in post–World War II America. Loman's false, desperate swagger is that of a man who can't bring himself to accept the fact that his goals are meaningless—it's not the singular anxiety of a man who would have been made painfully aware from childhood of his second-string status in a racist society.

William Hall Jr., who plays Willy here, palpably captures Loman's steely, sagging exhaustion, but he's fighting a losing battle with what Miller's script was never meant to say. When this Willy claims he's very well liked in Hartford, or says he doesn't know why people don't seem to like him elsewhere, he sounds far more delusional than Miller ever intended. Millions of people in Hartford and nearly every other American city in 1949 wouldn't deign to give this Willy, or his sons Biff (Justin Emeka) and Happy (Jonte Ausler), the time of day—and everyone would know why. That no one in this clan has a line of dialogue to remind one another of this painful fact makes these Lomans seem to be silently harboring a very large elephant in their East Coast abode.

The Lomans are willfully ignorant, of course, and if Moscou wanted to deconstruct Miller's play to make it about a family struggling against the paralysis of African-American self-hatred, we might have had something more interesting on our hands.

"I can outbox, outrun, and outlift anybody in that store," Ausler's Happy muses. "And I have to take orders from those common, petty sons of bitches till I can't stand it anymore."

This is the kind of sentiment to which Moscou could have added edge, but she doesn't, because she's already told us in program notes that it doesn't need one. It remains, then, what it was always meant to be—the complaint of a middle-class young white man who's frustrated with the pointless pecking order of a middle-class white establishment.

The production has a workshop vibe, as though the director and her ensemble are still searching to find what the play can mean. That's a fine mission, except that Moscou dismisses every opportunity to pounce on the places in which the play might find ironic purpose, as if pointing out that these characters aren't white were verboten. The show is free of the unsettling, questioning nuances that might have temporarily supported its raison d'être.

Even if she had reached further, though, Moscou would eventually come up empty— the play's colloquial, squeaky-clean"kids" and "dears" and "Pops" are entrenched in the language of a midcentury, white-bread family coming into an existential understanding of a more universal disappointment. And what's wrong with that? Making the Lomans black isn't the proof of this classic's relevance. Isn't the thrill of any great play simply that it transcends its specificity—that is, that it speaks to viewers from all walks of life, even those who are not, say, white, middle-class businessmen discovering that the American Dream is a crippling hoax? Salesman still resonates because Miller was telling a true, singular story as he knew it, just as August Wilsoncan move a white audience with Jitney despite the fact that it's about black cab drivers in Pittsburgh.

Emeka, in the finest work of the hit- or-miss cast, heartrendingly clutches at Hall at the production's climax and cries, "Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be?"

That's a good question.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow