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Reflecting On Death Of A Salesman
by Justin Emeka '94

For me, the most exciting thing about working on this particular production of Death of a Salesman at this time, in this "non-traditional" way, has to do with relevancy and form. I think a critique of the American Dream and discussion of what it means to be an American is more relevant today than ever, as the economy tumbles and Barack Obama is elected president amidst subtle accusations that he was not a "real American." This reminds me of the historic and epic struggle of so many dark skinned peoples to achieve a full sense of citizenship - a struggle that I hear echoed in the plight of Willy Loman. This is indeed an extraordinary moment in history as many Americans struggle for financial success while claiming a new hope and opportunity that generations of unrecognized heroes never realized. Still, there is a persistent desperation in the American dream that can bind us to perpetual division and iniquity if we don't acknowledge it.

Also, I am deeply committed to the development of a theatrical form that effectively incorporates the impacts of race and integrates unique cultural perspectives into "classic texts." Discussing the issue of race continues to be one of the most difficult conversations to have in America. Beneath the impressive record of American achievement, our nation still struggles to resolve our legacy of racial injustice and inequality. Even with a Black president, wounds from the past continue to haunt the masses and inform our national identity. And so when the topic of race arises, many have learned that the safest way to deal with it is to avoid the issue altogether by acting like it doesn't even exist. Today, much of our progress in racial politics is measured by our ability to effectively ignore the idea of race at all times. I believe this is reflected in the American Theatre by the use of color-blind casting.

Color-blind casting is ideally the practice of casting the best actors for the job without regards to race in any given role. The practice hopes to be all-inclusive and alleviate preferential treatment based on race by not seeing race during the casting process. However, in America, if we are not racially, ethnically, or culturally specific, the white majority is assumed as the universal. Great American playwrights, often regaled with the title "classic playwrights," are writing an American story that is exclusive to a unique cultural framework that can often be defined by race. So, if the race of a character that was written for a white actor is not consciously changed to accommodate the actor, this can force non-white actors to assume or imitate white culture in order to fit into the world of the play. In this way, color-blind casting can serve to alienate those it seeks to include and further mask the honesty and diversity of American culture in its entirety. In the theatre, we should allow great traditions to come together and work side by side without one taking a back seat to the other. For this production, I wanted my vision to effectively work side by side with Arthur Miller's - never below or above - to reveal a truly American dilemma that we continue to confront as a nation: how do we achieve love and self-worth in a country where a person's worth is measured by his or her ability to make money?

I believe as the American theater becomes more inclusive and representative of the nation's diverse population, it is possible to address issues of race and incorporate distinct cultural experiences into the cannon of classical theatre. I don't feel that we need to altogether abandon color-blind casting, but I feel it's important to continue to develop innovative casting strategies. We can move beyond "color-blind casting" and allow race and culture the chance to impact character and relationship in any given setting through the use of "non-traditional casting." Does this compromise the text or its original intention? This is a conversation I encourage us to engage. I know there are those who strongly oppose this idea, having heard some mention that this process obstructs the author's original intentions. Yet, I believe this process does not compromise the author's vision but rather encourages a world of new possibilities within that vision by revealing fresh and new dimensions for artists and audiences alike.

In music, religion, dance, and even visual arts, there is a long tradition of Black artists creating new forms from the traditional. As a director, I've often wondered why this is not done more in the theatre. I am inspired by a theatrical process that is similar to the creative process of Jazz. In jazz, it is quite common for a musician to take a classic Broadway tune or standard and re-interpret it through the lens of a unique sensibility. This is not to replace or undo the author's original intent, but rather to expand its reach. Much like how John Coltrane re-interprets the popular song "My Favorite Things" using his unique sensibility. Coltrane did not feel bound to play the song in the way he thought the original author of the song intended. He played it the way he heard it. In this same way, as a director, I do not feel strictly bound to direct a classic play the way the playwright had in mind as he wrote. I feel equally accountable to incorporate those perspectives that shape and provide the context for my response to the given text.

In our production of Death of a Salesman, I do not believe race and ethnicity was the main focus for our audience. For me, it was not important for them to constantly be thinking about the characters in racial terms. It just provides a unique framework for this specific construction of character, relationship, and environment. Lorraine Hainesberry once said (I am paraphrasing) that many mistakenly assume that in order to be universal you must be non-specific, when in fact she believed just the opposite - by being specific we reveal the universal. That is what I hoped to do with this production. The tragedy of Willy Loman, as told through any cultural reality, provides a sobering reminder of the pitfalls within our uniquely American ambitions.

I welcome thoughts and responses from those who saw our production, or those who just have strong ideas in regards to this larger conversation...


Responses To This Entry:

Very well put! ABC is airing a show called "Drama High" Monday, December 15th at 9:00pm. It's a documentary about a 95% white high school drama department staging a production of "The Wiz." It almost feels like a reclamation of the original story. Regardless, I'm sure the show will present a wealth of color-blind notions to contemplate and challenge at length. (Check out the promo at the attached video url)

I find it very interesting that black art is co-opted and commodified by white artists and marketing executives. Yet, when the black experience is told through a traditionally white story (also known as an "American classic"), its as though a virgin has been tainted.

I wonder: What are the most effective way to incorporate our stories into the mainstream? Dose the key rest in creating new stories with "universal (does this mean white?) appeal" to combat the stigma of marginalization? Or do we insert our story into existing classic American paradigms to challenge the notion that our nations history is homogenous? I believe that both of these concepts raise questions of racial authenticity. The Cosby Show was all black, but many blacks feel that this show did not accurately (perhaps authentically) represent the majority of black families in America. So, we see here that creating new works for incorporation into the "mainstream" encounter the fluid notions of racial authenticity.

Barack Obama had to walk the fine line between establishing himself as "mainstream" while simultaneously navigating challenges to his racial authenticity. However, he emerged victorious in th "mainstream" and retained the support of blacks folks from all walks of life. Hopefully Barack's victory signals a change in the racial climate in our country and not the the anomalous story of one undeniably talented man. Furthermore, I hope that his accomplishments will not be used to invalidate the struggles that so many people of color face everyday. We need stories that inform and remind us of the multitude of human experiences. Especially the lesser told stories from the perspectives of people of color.

Posted by: Apollo on December 14, 2008 2:38 PM

››› photos from the show
››› press coverage
››› letter from teresa jenkins, educator
››› 90.3 wcpn ideastream interview
››› original trailer

"This production moved me on so many levels. The innovative, multi-racial casting brought new insight to the work, and underscored the timeless quality of the work. What especially struck me here was the poignancy of the father-son relationship. As portrayed by Avery Brooks and Justin Emeka, we saw that this tortured relationship drove so much of these two characters’ actions. My father, a labor economics professor and former chair of the faculty senate, has always been a role model and hero to me. This production, coming only a year after his passing, reinforced to me how much we are shaped by our parents. Death of a Salesman also speaks to our current economic condition and the changing role of jobs and longevity in the workplace. Avery Brooks’ portrayal of Willy Loman reminds us of the importance of work to the dignity and self-worth. This production will stay with me, and I am deeply grateful for the chance to see it become a reality. Death of a Salesman represents Oberlin at its finest."

Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov

Audience Responses

"This was an astonishingly brilliant interpretation of the play, with a superb ensemble and creative, effective staging. I was deeply moved."

"Powerful- especially meaningful. Much depth into the Afro-American experience."

"Very powerful. Captured the chaos, hopelessness, and wild desperate love that Miller wished for the play to portray. Good lighting effects and set design. True art!"

"Extremely powerful, especially the second half after intermission. Very intrigued by Ben's character and the new meaning of going to Africa that comes to light in with a Black Loman family."

"Excellent. Arthur Miller would be pleased with the production."

"It was exciting, eye opening, well staged, and compelling with excellent performances, especially by Linda. Not only was the performance a hit, it changed the way I saw the play (for I am the daughter of a one-time traveling salesman). The performance was full of integrity."

"I was moved, really, truly moved. At this point I'm still reeling, so I don't think I could put it into so many words. A beautifully done interpretation of this play; I don't think Ill be able to think of the play without thinking of this particular production. Congratulations!"

››› read all audience responses
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