Would August Wilson agree to the casting?
Strange – New York’s fall theater season kicks off with August Wilson’s ‘The Piano Lesson’ and Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’, both opening for preview the same week.
So strange you might almost think that August Wilson, up there in heaven, had deliberately orchestrated the duel awakenings himself – to make a point.
“I think that’s a conversation he’d like to have,” said Seret Scott, Teaneck’s writer-director who has overseen 10 August Wilson’s productions over the years.
What’s so strange about bringing these two particular pieces back to life, back to back?
Both are celebrated in American theater. And both offer major opportunities for big players. Samuel L. Jackson as Doaker Charles from “Piano Lesson”and Wendell Pierce as “Seller” Willy Lomanare strong arguments for the $116 that is now the average Broadway ticket price.
There’s also nothing remarkable about the African-American cast of “Death of a Salesman.”
The “non-traditional” casting is hardly topical these days. An all-female ‘1776’ (opening Oct. 6), a female ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ and an African-American ‘Pal Joey’ (dates to come) are just a few of the belated efforts to make up for 150 years of exclusive casting which deprived the theater of diversity and deprived good actors of roles. Who could object?
not a fan
August Wilson could.
Wilson, the Tony and Pulitzer winner, who died in 2005, hated the idea of experimental casting.
And ironically, his A exhibit — the great example of a play that shouldn’t be performed with non-white actors — was “Death of a Salesman.”
“To mount an all-black production of a ‘Death of a Salesman’ or any other play designed for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deprive us of our our own humanity, our own history,” he said in a 1996 speech at Princeton University.
His point of view was then controversial. That would be even more the case now – when his hypothetical “seller” opens on Broadway without a whisper (previews start Sept. 17, grand opening is Oct. 9). “Unconventional” casting is now the new convention.
But in fact, Wilson wasn’t the only one to feel this.
“August was speaking out publicly and using his well-deserved bullying pulpit to say things that a lot of black theater artists were saying in private at the time,” said Montclair playwright Richard Wesley (“The Black Terror” , “The Mighty Gents,” “The Talented Tenth”), a pioneer whom Wilson, in the same speech, cited as an influence.
You could say that as a playwright, Wesley has a dog in this fight.
Cast “Colorblind” sounds progressive. And it is – insofar as it expands the number of roles available to actors and broadens the theater’s audience.
But every reimagined “Salesman” and “Streetcar Named Desire” that occupies theater real estate is potentially a play by a black playwright who is not product.
“If all we do every season is the same group of famous plays in quotes by famous authors chosen by the same gatekeepers, then what you have is the same little circle of plays,” Wesley said.
New plays, new roles
Part of the reason Wilson wrote “The Piano Lesson” (1987) and the other nine pieces in his monumental “Pittsburgh Cycle” – 10 pieces examining African-American life in the 20th century, decade by decade – was to create a new canon of great roles for black performers, allowing them to stage their own story rather than that of others.
“[We] have to make our own inquiries from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans,” Wilson said.
It’s one thing to cast Shakespeare or Sophocles in an untraditional way. They are not realistic playwrights. The Greek actors wore masks. Men, in Shakespeare’s day, played women’s roles.
But “Salesman”, “Streetcar”, “Long Day’s Journey into Night” are rooted in specificities of class, time, culture. The same goes for plays by August Wilson. Just like those of Wesley.
“As an audience, you want authenticity,” Wesley said. “You want what you see on stage to reflect reality.”
“The Piano Lesson” (previews begin September 19; it officially opens October 13) is about a 1930s Pittsburgh family who must decide whether to sell their heirloom piano to buy the land their ancestors lived on. reduced to slavery.
Could it just as plausibly be white people? The question seems absurd – although Scott has heard of a production of Wilson’s “Fences” in China, with Asian actors. “I wondered myself how the hell this happened,” Scott said.
Which brings us to “Death of a Salesman”.
The famous play about Willy Loman, the stranded traveler who discovers, when he is fired at 63, that the American dream is hollow, is it really a universal American story? Could it be anyone, from any background?
Admittedly, he was taken for a lot in 1949. Willy is an Everyman. Even if the cadence of the dialogue (“You have to be careful of such a person”) suggests that the Lomans are Jewish.
“It’s pushed like the American experience,” Wesley said. “At that time, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant worldview was considered the American norm.”
But the particular dream to which Willy sacrifices his life — that America is the land of opportunity, that anyone can advance if they are “well loved” — was born out of white privilege.
The defining aspect of being Black, certainly in 1949, is all you could not expect to be – from the President of the United States to the owner of a house in a neighborhood that has not been set aside for you.
“Racism is part of our understanding of everything going on in the world,” Scott said. “It’s part of our lives – and that also means it’s part of our art. Whenever racism is not introduced, we know the story came from somewhere else.”
In short, the startling discovery that Willy Loman makes at the age of 63 is made, by non-white children, around the age of 5 – if James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, and just about every other writer on the African-American experience is to be believed.
A Black Willy Loman is conceivable – in a country of 300 million people, somebody is conceivable. But he would not be a universal type. It would be an anomaly. Someone whose fiery optimism would seem delirious to his neighbors.
“A Black Willy Loman is going to be closer to Walter Lee in ‘A Raisin in the Sun,'” Wesley said. “And watch how everyone in the family reacts to him.” “You’re crazy, boy,” says Walter’s sister, Beneatha, in Lorraine Hansberry’s classic 1959 play.
Obviously, this new “Salesman,” directed by Miranda Cromwell, is trying to tackle some of those issues.
At least the West End production this revival is based on featured white actors like Willy’s boss and his more affluent neighbors – implying that racism is part of Willy’s burden. But what white company in 1949 hired black salespeople?
“I think it would make a big difference for the cast, because it gives them a way in,” Wesley said. “It wouldn’t have made any difference to August. He would have pointed out that they had to go through all these machinations to create access to the room – and is this really the room that Arthur Miller had planned?”
A new day?
In the meantime, say this about the 2022 theater season. There seems to be a lot of non-white representation. That was much less true in 1996, when Wilson made his remarks.
“Topdog/Underdog” (October 20), “Ain’t No Mo'” (December 1), “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death”, “The Bodyguard”, “Born for This”, “Dreamgirls,” ” Soul Train”, “Sidney” (TBA), are some of the shows, coming to Broadway this season, that explore – deeply or otherwise – the black experience. Whatever “Death of a Salesman” is or is not, this is obviously not a spoiler.The very fact that in 2022 it opens opposite one of Wilson’s plays is telling.
“What Wilson was worried about is that if you’re doing ‘Death of a Salesman,’ that means you’re not doing a black writer’s play, a person trying to get in the door,” Scott said.
For a time, Scott was the only director authorized by Wilson to direct his plays: “Fences”, “The Piano Lesson”, “King Hedley II” and “Two Trains Running”, among others. She knew the playwright. She knows her job.
This particular issue was important to him, Scott says. Though she thinks her stance on non-mainstream casting may have softened a bit towards the end.
“It was the conversation he wanted,” she said. “It wasn’t so much where we landed. It was more like, keep talking. Keep talking.”