Wendell Pierce Credit: Photo courtesy of DKC/O&M

Wendell Pierce began preview performances of “Death of a Salesman” Sept. 17 at the Hudson Theatre, at 141 W 44th St. He is the first Black mactoran to be cast on Broadway in the role of Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller’s classic play. Anyone who has seen Pierce’s work, whether onstage in “The Piano Lesson” or on television in “The Wire,” “Treme” and more, has seen the depth of his abilities. A very humble Pierce took the time before attending rehearsals for the Broadway production, to talk about doing the play in New York, a role which he originally performed at the Young Vic Theatre in London’s West End and received an Olivier nomination for Best Actor. Talking to Pierce was quite moving as he vividly described the journey he is on in this Q&A.

AmNews: What is it like, as a Black actor, to play Willy 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 the American Hamlet. From the technical impact of an actor, it’s like climbing Mt. Everest, it’s a great challenge and I look forward to it. And from the other aspect I think of all those men who inspired me to be an actor, who paved the way for me—Ossie Davis, Roscoe Lee Brown, Earl Hyman—I think of all of them and how they were denied this opportunity to play the role, because of ignorance, a mentality that couldn’t conceive of a Black man playing the role, and so I do it in their honor. I also am  honored to be in that small group of men who played the role on Broadway, there’s only five—George C. Scott, Lee J. Cobbs, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and now me, so that’s a great honor and I feel a great obligation to those men who were denied the opportunity, to step up to the plate and do my best, so that motivates me every night.

AmNews: You played Willy Loman in London’s West End at the Young Vic and were nominated for Best Actor. What was your approach to the role in the West End production, and has that approach changed with the show’s moving to New York?

WP: The only difference is the fact that we have different cast members, we have American cast members who have taken over some of the roles. To be on stage with Andre De Shields, who is a Broadway icon, is different. That’s the only difference and what that does is that makes you refocus and [not] have the expectation of doing the same thing. I have the expectations of doing what is truthful and what we create together that is truthful. There’s a consistency in the play itself that is helpful, that is the guidepost, the North Star, that leads us to something that we created three years ago now in London, that we will recreate and still have the same impact hopefully here in New York. You rely on what is good work and good work is the chemistry that you build together, understanding of the material itself and then allowing that world to come together and influence your behavior. So that’s the only difference, different people, but it’s the same way of working.

AmNews: What is it that you want the audience to know about Willy Loman?

WP: I think that I’m really discovering, more and more, as I peel the layers away [that] it’s a cautionary tale, while it’s an indictment of the dysfunction of capitalism and the illusion of an American Dream that is unattainable for so many people. The real cautionary tale is to understand that in blind pursuit of materialism, you cannot see the wealth that you really have, which is the love of family. While we perceive some materialist wealth, there’s the love of family that Loman misses and the faith and the belief in that which will give him purpose, which will give him something to live for, he misses because he’s on this blind pursuit of this illusion of the American Dream and that’s the cautionary tale. The reason we go to the theater is to see something collectively as a group and reflect on it and take away something, and I think that’s what the takeaway will be. That there but by the grace of God go I…There’s so many other things that come before that materialism, the wealth of health, the wealth of faith, the wealth of love, of family and that’s what I hope people take away.

AmNews: What is the pronounced difference in doing this from the perspective of a Black family?

WP: That’s the thing that I remember from when we first did it in London—it amplifies it, it takes all of the message of the play and takes it to another level. Everyone comes in with the understanding of the African American experience—understanding the racism, opposition and obstacles that are uniquely placed in front of our journey amplifies all the themes of the play and so we don’t have to change a thing. It takes it to another level, people hear it clearly. There were times people in London, even the producers, came and said, “You guys put that in. I’ve seen this play many times and I’ve never heard that before.” There’s one instance where it’s said, “Oh, Mr. Loman you’d be a lot more comfortable back here.” It’s the small micro-aggression Black folks have to go through. “You don’t want to sit out here in the main dining room, you’d be better back here, it’s more private.” It’s things of that nature that ring out. There’s an insult in the play; when Dustin Hoffman did it someone called him a shrimp; when George C. Scott did it someone called him a 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 even have to say it and we know what the insult is. We don’t actually say what the person feels, but it’s what it is. So it’s that sort of magnification that happens, and the uniqueness of the African American experience, of a family in 1949 and all the aggressions and discrimination and racism that is inherit magnifies the themes of the play. And I always tell people, the more specific you are the more universal the message becomes. 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 the uniqueness of it will speak volumes to the humanity or the inhumanity of the moment, and then that will ring out to everyone. That’s what happens when you have it with an African American family.

AmNews: You performed this play with Sharon D Clarke as Linda Loman in London, and you are both reprising your roles for Broadway, what type of chemistry has grown between you?

WP: Sharon has been like a rock. It’s what she does in the play 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 on and off stage here. She is the epitome of a strong, loving Black woman who has held the Black family together for  generations.She is emblematic about that, that is one of the most beautiful things about doing it again. Sharon has become a dear friend and has become true family to me. This is just a whole new wonderful group of actors we will be working with, McKinley Belcher III and Khris Davis as my sons, then to be on stage with Andre De Shields is a dream, he’s a legend. This whole experience is a humbling honor.

AmNews: Miranda Cromwell co-directed the London production and won the 2020 Olivier Award. What is it like to work with her again? What is the process?

WP: Miranda is a wonderful director. My appreciation of her has increased because I watched her be so creative in the process in London. There was a collaboration and there was a creation and she comes to New York and she could have easily just said okay you’re new to the process, you’re new to the play, you’re new to my interpretation of it, just do this. I know it works, just do this and that is something that is not conducive to collaboration and creation. She allowed all the actors who are new to the play to discover the roles themselves and she led them and said, “Consider these aspects of the scene, of the play, of your journey,” and allowed them to find—which for Sharon and I was a rediscovering—but she allowed them to discover it for the first time and not just try to force their hand. And in that way, it is a replication of what we did in London and at the same time new, because they have their input in it. Miranda did what you would expect from a real elite director: an amateur would have come in and said, “Just listen, we did it this way in London and I won the Olivier Award for it and so, I’m just going to repeat that,” and she didn’t do that. She loved for people to discover it on their own, in collaboration with what her direction was and is and that creates a whole new entity which is a beautiful thing. That’s great directing. For her it’s very special, she’s very young, it’s a tribute to her father. She’s biracial, a woman of color and she lost her father, she wanted to make this a tribute to her father, the man that she knew. For her that’s a beautiful tribute.

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Every moment of interviewing Pierce was exhilarating. I can’t wait to experience this amazing play. Make plans to go! The production is hosting a couple of community night performances with discount tickets. Orchestra seats will go for $79 and Dress Circle seats for $49 with the code SALESMAN. The dates for the performances will be Wednesday, Sept. 28 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 30 at 3 p.m. For tickets visit www.salesmanonbroadway.com, call 855-801-5876, or go to the box office at 141 W 44th St.

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