Migration

The Great Migration informs a gripping and astonishing ‘death of a salesman’

Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke in “Death of a Salesman”. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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The summary:

One of Arthur Miller’s most produced pieces returns for a limited engagement following its acclaimed London revival. This production of Death of a seller marks the play’s sixth incarnation on Broadway, but the first time that its central characters – the Lohman family – have reflected the experience of the black community. Adding layers of socio-economic and racial tension, director Miranda Cromwell captures Willy Lohman’s journey of memory as he succumbs to the collapse of the American Dream.

Wendell Pierce (Thread, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan) and Sharon D Clarke star as long-married couple Willy and Linda Lohman with a stellar supporting cast in this position. Death of a seller at the epicenter of the first wave of the Great Migration in which a total of more than six million black Southerners moved to cities in the North, Midwest and West.

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Death of a salesman on Broadway
(left to right) Khris Davis, Wendell Pierce, Sharon D Clarke and McKinley Belcher III in “Death of a Salesman”. Photo by Joan Marcus.

No tea, no shade:

The deeply researched and carefully framed production includes additional program notes by Arminda Thomas and an online study guide. The precious tools provide historical context for the purchase of Willy and Linda’s 1924 home in Brooklyn, New York, and the 25-year mortgage hanging over their heads, like Anna Fleischle’s stage design, which consists into a sparse collection of wall units that drop down when needed. The larger setting feels more brutalist than Brooklyn but involves the claustrophobic urban development suffocating the life of the Lohman family.

With bursts of rage, humor and utter defeat, Pierce unearths a Willy Lohman for a new generation of viewers. His Willy is electric, with life’s rewards always at hand. Pushed to the limit, he begs his boss (the son of the man who hired him 34 years ago) to keep him.

Death of a salesman on Broadway
“Death of a Salesman” on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus.

“At that time, there was personality in her, Howard; there was respect, camaraderie and gratitude,” Willy says. “Nowadays everything is cut and dried, and there’s no chance of asserting friendship…or personality. They don’t know me anymore.

Willy’s brother Ben (André De Shields) appears as a ghostly apparition with plenty of personality, dressed in a white suit, rhinestone loafers, and hands weighted with jeweled rings. Surrounded by puffs of otherworldly fog, he hovers above Willy’s consciousness, as do his sons Biff (Khris Davis) and Happy (McKinley Belcher III). As a teenager, the couple’s stylized presentation, truncated by intrusive flashes of light and sound, brings Willy in and out of reality. But their adult selves ring more authentic, especially when contrasted with their mother, struggling to keep the family intact.

“Nowadays it’s all cut and dried, and there’s no chance of asserting friendship…or personality. They don’t know me anymore. Willy Loman, Death of a seller

Let’s take a moment:

Sharon D Clarke, reprising her role as Linda from last year’s production at London’s Young Vic Theatre, reconciles parts of Miller’s script that, in lesser hands, might position the devoted wife as blindly ignorant. Instead, Clarke’s Linda sees something beyond Willy’s crippling pride and infidelity.

After a night in which the young men were supposed to take Willy out to dinner but hit town with women they picked up at the restaurant, they return to find their mother furious. “You are a pair of animals! Not one, not another living being would have had the cruelty to abandon the man in a restaurant!” she cries, ordering them to get out of the house.

In the final moments of the play, Clarke delivers a poignant requiem – the Great Migration poignantly distilled to a moment full of grief and survival.

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Death of a salesman on Broadway
(left) Wendell Pierce; (right) Sharon D Clarke, Wendell Pierce and Khris Davis in ‘Death of a Salesman’. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The last word:

Lasting over three hours, with the addition of incidental music that permeates the production, Death of a seller is no small feat for the actors or the audience. “I have to know and feel that coat of lead, the heaviness and the weight of the world that hangs over Willy so that I can fight with all the fire and exuberance,” Pierce said in an interview with the New York Times. And fight, he does.

Death of a seller plays at the Hudson Theater on Broadway until January 15, 2023.