Director's Notes

As the American theater seeks to be more inclusive and representative of the Nation's diverse population, we must learn to incorporate race and, more importantly, culture into our understanding of a play and the telling of its story.

Death Of A Salesman is a heartrending play that reveals the tragic nightmare within the American dream through the story of Willy Loman. The main action of the play is the struggle to define one's own identity in a world where a man's worth is defined by his ability. Oberlin's production will explore how the construct of race -- notions of "whiteness" and "blackness" -- historically impact socioeconomic mobility, as well as identity and self-worth in America. This production illuminates a uniquely American experience by tracing the struggles of a black family in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1950s. In the process, we reveal within the traditional text, the equivalent of a new play -- one that provides an exciting and inspiring event in American Theater.

I believe it is important to expand tradition and embrace opportunities in theater that allow us to celebrate and explore underrepresented cultural traditions. We should allow race and culture to influence character and relationship in any given setting through the use of nontraditional casting. Nontraditional casting is the use of actors of color in roles written for white actors, but also incorporating the race, culture, and/or ethnicity of those actors into the characters and play.

Death Of A Salesman is well served with a nontraditional cast and can be effectively framed through the lens of an African American experience. The actors assembled for Oberlin's production combines a unique set of cultural experiences and aesthetics. The production explores their relationships within a multicultural society.

In our production, Willy Loman is a charismatic, African American traveling salesman who lives with his family in a multiethnic Brooklyn neighborhood. Next door to the Lomans lives Charley, a Jewish immigrant who fled Poland during the invasion of the Third Reich, and his son Bernard. Charley and Willy's friendship originally emerged out of convenience -- them being neighbors and both being from marginalized communities in America. Over the years, as Charley and Bernard climb the socioeconomic ladder, Willy's respect for his friend is confused with resentment. Unable to prove himself in the mostly white business world, Willy has an affair with a white woman he meets while traveling. There is a persistent sense of danger in their secret encounters -- he is not just a married man cheating on his wife, he is a black man sleeping with a white woman in pre-civil rights era Boston.

Music, specifically jazz, is an important element of Oberlin's interpretation. The rhythms and sensibilities of jazz pervade the entire aesthetic of the production. The literal impact of jazz is felt in historic recordings and live performances. On an abstract level, the set takes inspiration from the rhythmic traditions of jazz: repetition, flexibility, overlaps, and breaks in time. Certain recognizable melodies follow Willy throughout the play.

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 illusions of progress and stability. Although it is a deeply tragic story, audiences gain a sense of liberation from confronting 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.

Though Miller's text is now more than half a century old, it continues to be an important tool through which we can explore and discuss the struggles and triumphs of our multiracial, multicultural, multinational society in ways that even today we have not learned to do.

Justin Emeka
August, 2008
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