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Stars of 'Death of a Salesman' revival on how casting impacts story
Amna Nawaz: It is one of the great classics of American theater, "Death of a Salesman," a drama confronting American dreams and harsh realities.
A new production opening Sunday on Broadway offers a different window into a story captivating audiences for more than 70 years.
Jeffrey Brown talks to actors Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke for arts and culture series, Canvas.
Wendell Pierce, Actor: There were promises made cross this desk! You mustn't tell me you have people to see!
Jeffrey Brown: In "Death of a Salesman," Willy Loman is a proud, but beaten-down man, an aging traveling salesman grasping at illusions of his own success and that of his sons.
Wendell Pierce: You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away! A man is not a piece of fruit!
Sharon D Clarke, Actress: He is not the finest character that ever lived, but he's a human being.
Jeffrey Brown: While his wife, Linda, desperately tries to save him.
Sharon D Clarke: So attention must be paid.
Jeffrey Brown: In a new Broadway production directed by Miranda Cromwell, there is an additional reality. The Loman family is Black.
Sharon D Clarke: Attention must be finally paid to such a person.
Jeffrey Brown: And that, for actors Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke, brings a new richness and depth to the story.
Wendell Pierce: It doesn't change. It's augmented. The delusion, the pursuit of this American dream, this idealism, it becomes...
Sharon D Clarke: It's an impossibility. It's futile.
Wendell Pierce: ... an impossibility, an intangible, an intangible thing. And -- but he refuses to accept that.
Sharon D Clarke: I wanted Linda to be the linchpin of the family, as Black women are linchpins in families. And I think, if we're going to do this through that perspective, through that lens, then, for me, it's important that's what we see.
Jeffrey Brown: Pierce, 58, is a Juilliard Conservatory-trained actor...
Wendell Pierce: And those two are definitely straight-up drug executions.
Jeffrey Brown: ... who first gained wide attention in the early 2000s as detective Bunk Moreland on the HBO series "The Wire" and has gone on to many other powerful TV, film, and stage roles.
Wendell Pierce: You should have left me behind.
John Krasinski, Actor: Don't worry. There is still time for that.
Jeffrey Brown: In Willy Loman, he takes on one of the most defining characters in theater history, one created by legendary playwright Arthur Miller in 1949 and played on Broadway by a who's-who of renowned actors.
Actor: He's got spirit!
Jeffrey Brown: Lee J. Cobb, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, all great, all white. In theater tradition, this was a white family.
It's been a dream role for Pierce, but in a recent talk at famed Broadway restaurant Sardi's, he thought first of others.
Wendell Pierce: I think of all the men who wanted to play it before, but because of the times and the ignorance of prohibitions of who could and could not play it, I wanted to do it in honor of them also.
Jeffrey Brown: You're talking about Black actors who didn't get the chance?
Wendell Pierce: Black actors, yes, didn't get the chance. I think about some of my heroes specifically. Ossie Davis, I think of the most, Roscoe Lee Browne, men who actually inspire me to become an actor, as I was a young boy in New Orleans reading these theater newsletters from New York and watching their careers.
Jeffrey Brown: Clarke is a veteran British stage actor who's also been active in TV and films. She gained a Tony nomination earlier this year for her Broadway performance in "Caroline, or Change," in which she played a maid in a Southern white family.
This opportunity, she says, came as a shock.
Sharon D Clarke: I never, ever put myself in this role. And I never thought anyone would ask me to do it. So...
Jeffrey Brown: It wasn't in the cards? It wasn't even in your dreams?
Sharon D Clarke: I never even thought about it, never even thought about it, and never thought anyone would approach someone who looks like me to do this role.
I will make a big breakfast.
Actor: Will you let me finish?
Jeffrey Brown: Linda Loman has often been portrayed as something of a doormat, trying to bridge the gulf between her husband and their two sons, Biff, played by Khris Davis, and Happy, McKinley Belcher.
Clarke looked for her strength, and found it in her own family story.
Sharon D Clarke: It honors my mom. You know what I mean? It honors all those women. My mom came from Jamaica to Britain, to a country where she wasn't welcomed, no Blacks, no Irish, no dogs, and having to make her way and having to hold the family together.
And, also, my parents were the first ones from my family that came through. So all of my family came through my house first. So I grew up with my family before they all found their spaces. So, for me, it honors them and what they went through and all the vicissitudes of life that they had to deal with.
Actor: Hey, pop. Take a seat. You want a drink?
Jeffrey Brown: Class has always been and remains an issue in the play, an economic inequality that now also has a contemporary feel, along with the new dynamic of race.
The words haven't changed, but, at times, they resonate in the theater in a new way.
Wendell Pierce: Something happened last night that was one of the most cathartic things that ever happened.
Jeffrey Brown: In one scene, Willy had admonished his son Biff before a meeting with a prospective boss.
Wendell Pierce: And if anything falls off his desk while you are talking to him, like a package or something like that, don't you pick it up. They got office boys for that.
Jeffrey Brown: Later, though, Willy himself faces the same situation with his younger white boss.
Wendell Pierce: A woman screamed out in the audience. I knew it was a Black woman. She just said, "No! Don't!"
You could feel the pain that she had gone through, understanding what Willy was going through, understanding what she probably had to through, the indignity, and she could not keep silent.
Jeffrey Brown: Willy does pick it up. He does lose his job, and his relationship with his sons and eventually his mind, including in scenes with his long-lost brother, played by Tony winner Andre De Shields.
In this psychological breakdown, Clarke says, she found another way into her character.
Sharon D Clarke: My thing is to look after this man, no matter what, because also we're dealing with mental illness as well in a time when we're not talking about mental illness.
We're basically only just coming to terms with talking about mental illness now. And if you kind of think about in that time, where there would be...
Wendell Pierce: So taboo.
Sharon D Clarke: ... nowhere to turn, no -- you know, you say to someone, I think my husband might be going crazy, the men in white coats might come and drag him off.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Sharon D Clarke: So, you -- it's how you deal with that as well. And, for me, what holds her to that is love. I don't know what to do in this situation, where my man is basically losing his mind in front of me and trying to kill himself.
So all I can do is love him, love him, love him, because that is the wealth of that family.
Jeffrey Brown: For the actors, while their version is more specific in its Black focus, it remains universal, the very thing that made this a theater classic in the first place.
Wendell Pierce: It changes you. And I think back -- I wrote this, this morning to a friend -- all those years ago at Juilliard, when we would say, what are we doing this for? Why are we doing this?
Wendell Pierce: It took me 40 years.
Jeffrey Brown: The rehearsing, the practicing, the training.
Wendell Pierce: The training, and the practice, and the real intense sort of conservatory training. And I said, oh, this is what it was for.
Jeffrey Brown: "Death of a Salesman" runs through January 23.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown on Broadway.