Willy Loman’s blues meets jazz
Watching Wendell Pierce perform is more like listening to music than watching a play. It’s his job to push a story forward, but he’s best enjoyed based on individual readings and gestures. At its best, his scratchy, searching baritone can make the melody of a phrase carry meaning beyond its words. His stocky, strong body, full of intent, moves decisively: he shakes a shoulder or points a finger and you know what he means. Often this is something you won’t find spelled out in the script.
Pierce is probably best known for playing Detective Bunk in “The Wire,” created by David Simon. I liked him best in the less plot-dependent “Treme,” also by Simon, in which he plays Antoine Batiste, a wily, cunning jazz trombonist from New Orleans who finds his calling as a teacher of music in a public school. Antoine moves through the traveling milieu of “Treme” like a tune through a song, subject to surprising developments but always recognizable to himself, suggesting a wildness and a soulful depth beyond the borders of the screen. If acting is an art of compression – where a movement or inflection is meant to crystallize whole social contexts and very particular ways of being – Pierce has achieved a rare mastery in “Treme”.
Like Antoine Batiste, Pierce is originally from New Orleans and has a great interest in music. Recently, he made a guest appearance on his high school friend Wynton Marsalis’ genre album “The Ever Fonky Lowdown” as Game, a satirical carnival barker and emcee. Here are some of Game’s lines, delivered with cruel and thrilling verve by Pierce:
All of this helps me understand why Pierce, a sort of jazzman in the art of acting, was chosen to play Willy Loman in the strangely uneven new Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” , from 1949, directed by Miranda Cromwell at the Hudson Theater. (The production hails from London, where it was highly praised.) After all, Willy has an entirely understandable blues case, and he’s extremely sensitive to the dream-selling Game so blatantly indulges in. He’s a salesman who isn’t so successful but can’t stop his patter, having become so accustomed to the beats of his verbose commerce that, as we discover early in the play, he’s been talking to people who aren’t even there. He’s like a traveling trumpeter – always an accompanist, never a conductor – whose fingers remember their patterns long after his breath has run out. Willy mysteriously started crashing his car; it’s gotten so bad he can’t make the trip from Brooklyn to New England, his longtime sales territory. His sons, Biff (Khris Davis) and Happy (McKinley Belcher III), are temporarily at home, appalling Willy with their poor job prospects and even worse character.
Willy adheres to his country’s bountiful promises, but believes that the path to happiness – even imaginary success – is through oneself, not the state. He stands alone on the razor’s edge between survival and the abyss. In this way, he is an ideological twin of Albert Murray, the jazz critic and gonzo theorist who had a profound influence on Marsalis and, I imagine, on Pierce as well, at least by osmosis. In his book “The Hero and the Blues”, Murray fleshed out his idea of how the jazzman – symbol of bold endeavors and possible victories of any art – stands against the dragon of history and social unrest, enduring her blows in “cooperation”, not complaining about her ferocity but challenging her to a duel.
It’s a brutal take on society – noble but, when you think about it, sad. As a guide to life, it works if you’re indeed a hero, but if you’re made of softer stuff, like Willy is, well, never mind. Willy can’t swing with the band and he plays wrong note after wrong note; it drives him out of the hole, and his family with him.
Pierce embodies Willy with a dark irony, fully aware of his aspirations and therefore even more pained by his failures. Pierce – trained at Juilliard, aware of his body as an expressive motor – makes a meal out of Willy’s endless rafts of speeches. In Pierce’s imagination, Willy has the raw materials – the voice, a certain way of straightening his back – to make a good preacher or politician, but his essential stupidity turns even his natural faculties against him. He talks too much.
Cromwell’s revival features black actors as the Lomans, adding a new sociological layer to Willy’s struggles. Sharon D Clarke plays Willy’s wife, Linda; the production takes advantage of Clarke’s excellent voice by adding a portion of song. It opens with an eerie group rendition of the witty “When the Trumpet Sounds”, and at one point Linda sings for Willy, providing sweet but ultimately cheap momentary comfort.
Clarke’s voice is as rich and varied when speaking as when singing. it punctuates the cadences of questioning and rotation even when it does not ask a question. This vocal fullness adds to the dignified allure of her physical presence and makes her feel like she’s only saying half (or less) of what she really feels. His Linda is a coagulated, hesitant creature who sometimes explodes in torrents of reprobation towards her insufficiently respectful sons.
The last time audiences saw Clarke on Broadway was during last fall’s revival of Tony Kushner’s tense musical “Caroline, or Change,” where she played Caroline, a black housekeeper in Louisiana. whose bitter anger puts her at odds with the young Jewish boy whose family she sullenly serves. So over the past year, Clarke has offered a two-part commentary on the pervasive trope of the stoic, strong black woman, and how her silence can curdle. In Caroline’s case, it turns into words she can’t take back. Linda takes devotion to inadvisable extremes, becoming a toxic catalyst for Willy’s delusions and an unwitting co-conspirator in his ruinous mess of their boys.
Despite the genuine shimmers of insight in Pierce and Clarke’s performances, it’s hard to appreciate them, as they weren’t made to be consistent with each other. They often seem not to be performing in the same room or pointing out the same unspoken realities. This is doubly true of the larger set. Davis, in particular, can’t settle for an angle. In flashbacks illustrating Willy’s memories, Davis plays a pastiche of a snotty-nosed, obnoxious child, and even in what’s supposed to be a more or less naturalistic present, he’s goofy, then serious, then does a stilted voice. and humorous.
The fault lies less with the actor than with the staging, which teems with approaches but does not find a symbolic framework suited to the tragedy it wishes to convey. The set (by Anna Fleischle) is intriguingly constructed – it has all the door and window frames but no walls, a reminder of how we peek into our neighbours’ homes and, implicitly, in their pockets too. But the lights (by Jen Schriever) are a cacophony that matches the confused direction. “You have to be careful,” as Linda says in her famous speech. But to what? This spectacle will not direct our gaze.
Cromwell dabbles in edgy and often antique expressionism, particularly in flashbacks, but these moments tend to be broad, especially those featuring Willy’s older brother Ben (André De Shields), who is dressed, inexplicably , in campy white, like a weak vampire or pimp, appearing and retreating in plumes of smoke. The method saps the power of these scenes and drains the game of its music.
This new “salesman” might have used Pierce’s finely tuned instrument to make unlikely new claims about race and capital, the self and the howling winds outside. Instead, it’s a clash of cymbals, all sound and little meaning. I can’t wait to see Pierce improvise with a better band. ♦