Wendell Pierce, First Black Willie Loman in ‘Death of a Salesman’
Wendell Pierce begins previewing a performance of “Death of a Salesman” on September 17 at the Hudson Theater at 141 W 44th St. He is the first Black McToron to be cast on Broadway in the role of Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s classic play. Anyone who has seen Pierce’s work, whether on stage in “The Piano Lesson” or on television in “The Wire,” “Treme” and others, has seen the depth of his abilities. A very polite Pierce took time before attending rehearsals for a Broadway production, in New York, to talk about performing the play, a role he originally played at the Young Vic Theater in London’s West End and best known for his Received an Olivier nomination for Actor. It was exciting to talk to Pierce as he vividly describes his journey in this Q&A.
mnewsQ: As a black actor, what’s it like to play Willie Loman?
wp: It’s one of the great roles of the American canon, it’s a classic. It’s one of the most challenging roles, I call it American Hamlet. From the technical impact of an actor, it is like climbing Mount Everest, it is a big challenge and I am looking forward to it. And from the other side I think of all the people who inspired me to become an actor, who paved the way for me—Ossie Davis, Roscoe Lee Brown, Earl Hyman—I think of all of them and they How was he denied this opportunity to play the role, because of ignorance, a mindset that a black man couldn’t imagine playing the role, and so I do it in his honor. I’m also honored to be in that small group of men who played roles on Broadway, only five—George C. Scott, Lee J. Cobbs, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and now I, so this one Great respect and I feel a great obligation to those who were denied the opportunity, to step up to the plate and do my best, which inspires me every night.
mnews: You played Willie Loman in London’s West End at the Young Vic and was nominated for Best Actor. What was your approach to the role in the West End production, and has that approach changed as the show moved to New York?
wp: The only difference is that we have different actors, we have American actors who have taken over certain roles. It’s a different thing to be on stage with Broadway icon Andre de Shields. That’s all the difference and what he does is refocus you and [not] Hoping to do the same thing. I hope to do what is true and what we create together is true. There’s a continuity in the play itself that’s helpful, that guidepost, The North Star, which leads us to something we built three years ago in London, that we’ll recreate and still have the same effect here in New York. hopefully . You rely on good work and good work being the chemistry you create together, understanding the ingredients and then letting that world come together and influence your behavior. So the only difference is, different people, but the way of working is the same.
mnews: What is it that you want viewers to know about Willie Loman?
wp: I feel like I’m actually searching more and more, because I’m peeling off the layers [that] While it is a cautionary tale, it is an indictment of capitalism’s dysfunction and the illusion of an American dream that is unattainable to so many. The real cautionary tale is to understand that in the blind pursuit of materialism, you cannot see the wealth that you really have, which is the love of family. While we see some materialistic wealth, there is the love of family that Loman remembers and the faith and belief in him that will give him purpose, that will give him something to live for, he remembers as he embarks on this blind pursuit of illusion. There’s the American Dream and that’s a cautionary tale. The reason we go to the theater is because we look at something collectively as a group and reflect on it and carry something, and I think that would be the way. That there but by the grace of God I go… Before that materialism comes many more things, wealth of health, wealth of faith, wealth of love, of family and that’s what I hope people will take.
mnewsWhat is the obvious difference in doing this from the perspective of a black family?
wp: That’s what I remember when we first did it in London – it elevates it, it takes all the messages of the drama and takes it to another level. Everyone comes with an understanding of the African American experience – understanding the racism, protests and barriers that have been uniquely placed at the front of our journey amplify all of the themes of the play and so we don’t need to change anything. Takes it to another level, people hear it clearly. There were times people would come to London, even the producers would come and say, “You guys put it on. I’ve seen this play many times and I’ve never heard it before.” There’s one instance where it’s said, “Oh, Mr. Loman you’d be a lot more comfortable back here.” This is the little subtle aggression black people have to go through. “You don’t want to sit here in the main dining room, you’d better be back here, it’s more private.” It is the things of that nature that ring. There is humiliation in the play; When Dustin Hoffman did this someone called him a shrimp; When George C. Scott did this someone called him the Walrus, because Arthur Miller changed the insult because he was alive, and he would change it to fit the particular actor. So, when it comes to me we don’t have to say that and we know what an insult is. We don’t really say what the person feels, but it is who he is. So it is that kind of magnification, and the uniqueness of the African American experience, of a family in 1949 and all the aggression and discrimination and racism that is inherited, amplifies the themes of the play. And I always say to people, the more specific you are, the more universal the message is. A lot of times people will say you don’t have to do anything, it’s all universal. No, you have to do something to make it universal, be specific in your choice, your interpretation, because its uniqueness will speak a lot to the humanity or the inhumanity of the moment, and then it will be heard by all. That’s what happens when you have this with an African American family.
mnews: You performed this play in London with Sharon de Klerk as Linda Loman, and with you both reprising your roles for Broadway, what kind of chemistry grew between you?
wp: Sharon has been like a rock. That’s what she does in drama and in the rehearsal room and in life. She is my foundation and my support and when we did it in London, she cared for me on and off stage and she cares for me here on and off stage. She is the epitome of a strong, loving black woman who has held the black family together for generations. That’s the epitome of it, one of the most beautiful things about redoing it. Sharon has become a dear friend and true family to me. It’s a whole new amazing group of actors we’ll be working with, McKinley Belcher III and Khris Davies as my sons, then being on stage with Andre de Shields is a dream, he’s a legend. This whole experience is a humble honour.
mnews: Miranda Cromwell co-directed the London production and won the 2020 Olivier Award. What’s it like to work with him again? what is the procedure?
wpMiranda is a great director. My appreciation for him has grown because I have seen him get very creative in the process in London. There was a collaboration and there was a composition and she comes to New York and she can easily say okay you’re new to the process, you’re new to drama, you’re new to my interpretation of it, just do it. I know it works, just do it and it is something that is not conducive to collaboration and creation. He allowed all the actors who were new to the play to find the roles themselves and he led them, saying, “Consider these aspects of the scene, of your journey, these aspects of the play,” and seek them out. Allowed – which is what Sharon and I were looking for again – but he allowed them to find it for the first time and not just try to force his hand. And as such, it’s a replica of what we did in London as well as new, because it has their input. Miranda did what you’d expect from a real elite director: an amateur would have come over and said, “Just listen, we did it this way in London and I won the Olivier Prize for it and so, I’m just going to repeat that. , ”and she didn’t. She wanted people to discover her themselves, what her direction was and what it was and it creates a whole new entity which is a beautiful thing. It’s great direction. It’s so special to her. ‘She’s too young, it’s a tribute to her father. She’s biracial, a woman of color and she’s lost her father, she wanted it to be a tribute to her father, the man she knew. For them This is a beautiful tribute.
Every moment of Pierce’s interview was exhilarating. I can’t wait to experience this amazing drama. Make plans to go! The production is hosting some community nightly performances with discount tickets. Orchestra seats with a salesman code will cost $79 and dress circle seats will cost $49. Performance dates will be Wednesday, September 28 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, October 30 at 3 p.m. For tickets visit www.salesmanonbroadway.com, call 855-801-5876, or visit the box office at 141 W 44 ST.