What makes a play a classic? Cincinnati Shakespeare Company specializes in such works: The downtown company just presented a revival of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus and found itself with a string of sold-out performances. Their approach was to re-create a great script, very faithful to the original with solid acting in every role.
Sometimes, however, revivals of classics move in a new direction. On Sept. 20, I had the singular good fortune to see a production that made me think more about what we see here in Cincinnati. I was in Oberlin, Ohio, attending a gathering of college alumni. Part of our weekend’s entertainment was a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, an award-winning work from 1949 that’s even more relevant in today’s sour economic climate.
The Oberlin production filters the story of desperation via a cast of African-American actors. TV and film star Avery Brooks played Willy and professional actress Petronia Paley enacted his long-suffering wife.
Their sons were portrayed by Justin Emeka (as Biff) and Darryle Johnson (as Happy). Emeka, an Oberlin professor, was also the production’s director. Brooks and Emeka are Oberlin alumni, 1970 and 1994.
The production was amended slightly. For instance, the opportunity to go to Alaska to make a fortune was shifted to Africa. But the fundamental story translated beautifully and powerfully, with Willy’s weariness and depression flowing out of Brooks like a silted-up river. The jostling joviality of the sons, whose lives seem headed toward their sad father’s plight, was believable in the changed context. The production ended a week ago, but you can still see many aspects of it on a Web site dedicated to the effort: www.salesman.oberlinevents.org/index.shtml.
I’m not always a fan of updated classics transported to some unlikely place, but this one truly worked. The common ground between the white experience Miller originally envisioned a half-century ago and the black experience that Emeka and Brooks brought to the Oberlin production underscore the universality of the story.
In the program, Emeka wrote, “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 the illusions of progress and stability.
Although it's a deeply tragic story, audiences gain a sense of liberation from considering 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.”
The classic play is about to get a Cincinnati staging by New Edgecliff Theatre (Oct. 9-25). I’m sure that NET’s production will plumb different depths and aspects of Death of a Salesman. That’s the opportunity offered us by the classics.
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