Yale Rep just announced Death of a Salesman for next month with an all-African American cast headed by Charles Dutton.
The idea of an all-black Salesman is not a new one. And the play has indeed been done all over the world with actors of all races and colors. (Most documented in Miller's own staging in China.) But it's also a kind of "Exhibit A" for color-blind casting that August Wilson took aim at in his famously controversial 1997 polemic against the practice.
To mount an all black production of Death of A Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specific of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans. It is an assault on our presence, our difficult but honorable history in America, and an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large.Of course, Wilson does/did not speak for all African Americans. This famous argument of his was inexorably linked to his own project of writing a very ethnically specific body of work for a distinct people.
So it's interesting to see Dutton--a definitive August Wilson actor if there ever was one, one whose career jumpstarted on the backs of Wilson's tormented male protagonists--taking on this role. At the same time, we must add, that Wilson's masterpiece Joe Turner's Come and Gone arrives on Broadway directed by Bartlett Sher. That Sher is white shouldn't matter other than it recalls Wilson's own adamant insistence on black directors, which derailed the filming of his play, Fences back in the late 1980s.
I confess I've always had some sympathy with Wilson's argument. Part of it was driven by practical goals for black artists in the profession itself--i.e. by insisting on black directors he made sure many were hired. (And many black theatre directors today, I'm sure, owe some of their earnings to the August Wilson plays they are routinely booked to stage around the country.) And it also needed to be said, at the time, that, no: simply casting black actors in Death of a Salesman cannot mean theatres can "check off" the "black play" slot. It does not mean you have done anything to foster a more diverse theatre at its core.
But in recent years, Suzan-Lori Parks, when asked to define "a black play" quipped: "The Glass Menagerie is a black play." Speaking of Tennessee we have also seen a boffo all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway that survived tepid reviews due to huge African American audience turnout--an audience that had not turned out since more "genuinely" black plays as Color Purple and Raisin in the Sun. The sheer presence of James Earl Jones and Terence Howard might indeed have made Williams' play "black enough" if I may invoke that awkward debate.
So, speaking of that refrain, is our theatre in the age of Obama becoming "post-racial"? Obviously the term itself is absurd. But it's interesting to look for signs of something Hollywood is grappling with: that with a black man in the White House, "minorities" can no longer be considered just "supporting roles" anymore. Will the casting process in the theatre reflect this, too? And has Wilson's mission now given way to different times?
As for Dutton's Loman, whatever the arguments for or against, I say never give up an opportunity to see a great actor in a great role.