Last weekend I had the singular good fortune to see a theater production out of town that made me think more about what we see here in Cincinnati. I was in Oberlin, Ohio, attending a gathering of alumni of the college. Part of our weekend's entertainment was a production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. The 1949 play is now a classic, of course (Cincinnati's New Edgecliff is staging a production that runs Oct. 9-24), and the story of Willy Loman's desperate life is iconic in literature. A revival of the play in 1999 (the show's 50th anniversary) starring Brian Dennehy in the leading role won several Tony Awards. The play seems all the more relevant in today's tough economic climate.
But the Oberlin production I saw on Sept. 20 added another layer: Willy was played by Avery Brooks; his long-suffering wife was enacted by Petronia Paley; their sons were portrayed by Justin Emeka (as Biff) and Darryle Johnson (as Happy). Emeka was also the production's director. Perhaps you recognize Brooks' name: He's starred in several TV series, most notably as Capt. Benjamin Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; he also played a streetwise crime fighter named Hawk in Spencer for Hire and A Man Called Hawk. Brooks and Emeka are Oberlin alumni. But the really operative fact is that all four actors in these central roles are African Americans.
The production was slightly tweaked in a few other ways to make this change meaningful and pertinent. (For instance, the opportunity to go to Alaska to make a fortune is shifted to Africa.) But the fundamental story translated beautifully and powerfully, with Willy's weariness and depression flowing out of Brooks like a silted-up river. The jostling and joviality of the sons — which is a cover for lives that are just a generation younger than their sad father's plight — was believable in the changed context. I'm not always a fan of re-making a classic by transporting it to some unlikely place, but this one really worked because there was a lot of common ground between the white experience that Miller originally envisioned and the black experience that Emeka and Brooks brought to the Oberlin production. In fact, I was especially impressed with how this production highlighted the universality of the story.
Emeka wrote this in the program: "Death of a Salesman continues to resonate with all Americans, regardless of race, because of its bold critique of Americanism. It is as important today as it was in the 1950s for us to reflect on the self-destructive principles within American society, hidden behind the illusions of progress and stability. Although it is a deeply tragic story, audiences gain a sense of liberation from considering the root of Willy's tragedy. Using a nontraditional cast and incorporating the appropriate cultural sensitivity to this production allows us to expand the discussion and celebrate the artistic possibilities."
Oberlin College created an impressive Web site for the production that's worth exploring, with blogging from various cast members (many of the smaller roles were played by student actors), background statements from Brooks, Emeka and others, plus some videos of the performers at work.
This is not a touring production, but I'd love to see something similar mounted here in Cincinnati. It would provoke a lot of important conversations.
– Rick Pender