Wendell Pierce on bringing a Black Willy Loman to life, making "Death of a Salesman" relevant today

Salon sits down with the Broadway actor and "The Wire" star to discuss the American Dream and Black Americans

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published December 10, 2022 11:00AM (EST)

Wendell Pierce in Death Of A Salesman (Photo illustration by Salon/Photos by Joan Marcus)
Wendell Pierce in Death Of A Salesman (Photo illustration by Salon/Photos by Joan Marcus)

"Death of Salesman," the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Arthur Miller classic, is brilliantly depressing. We meet the protagonist, burned-out salesman Willy Loman, when he's at the end of his rope. Willy's once semi-lucrative sales career has dried up. His wife and kids, whom he's grown sick of coming home to, are equally sick of his constant shortcomings. He dreams of better days, all the while knowing that they won't come, and reminisces about the past, even though the kind of prosperity he dreamed of was never fully within his reach. We watch Willy, who shrinks to a smaller and smaller person right before our eyes and loses his mind along with the idea of the American Dream, questioning if that ever really existed at all.

Miller's play was a smash at its original opening in 1949. The play, set in Brooklyn, was packaged as a small book and sold over 11 million copies, making it "probably the most successful modern play ever published," according to New Yorker drama critic John Lahr. The play went on to have multiple stints on Broadway, with George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy and Philip Seymour Hoffman all playing Willy in various iterations. The play has been performed all over the world, including China. Other theaters have experimented with switching up the basic makeup and elements of the different characters in the play, but there has never been a Black cast on Broadway until Wendell Pierce, Sharon D. Clarke (who plays his wife Linda Loman), McKinley Belcher III and Khris Davis (sons Happy and Biff) took center stage with director Miranda Cromwell this fall.

Changing Willy from white to Black completely causes a shift in perspective and the way the audience absorbs the story, even if not a word of the script changes. White people are supposed to experience the American dream: financial success, land ownership, freedom from discrimination. The pursuit of happiness is their birthright. In the 1940s, Black people were still trying to find their footing as Americans. At the time, Pierce's father, Amos Pierce Jr., was fighting in the Mariana Islands during the World War II Battle of Saipan.

At the time, a Black man couldn't have complained about the plight of his industry changing because many Black people were not a part of any industry — they were just trying to not be lynched. The Lomans' financial status in the original play — having a car and being floated by their neighbor when money was low — would have been a dream in comparison to what many African Americans had to deal with in the '40s. That realization gave Pierce the ability to reimagine Willy, which switched the entire premise of the play. 

"There's nothing in the past that this economic or social or cultural system would say that we should be optimistic," Pierce told me during our sit down on "Salon Talks." "Everything from the most minute detail to the systematic oppression that happens with Black folks, nothing in this country — nothing in this country — has ever said to us, 'You should be optimistic about being here.'"

For Pierce, that realization brought out another side of Black Willy: his ability to dream in the face of everything in his life going badly. "All the change that has happened has come from our dogged persistence and determination. Everything," Pierce said. "That's a cultural thing. Culture is where people and life itself intersect. And for Black folks making a way out of no way."

"Death of a Salesman" marks Pierce's fifth stint on Broadway, but most people know the actor from HBO's "Treme" and the legendary, lovable (and drunk) detective William "The Bunk" Moreland from "The Wire." While those roles challenged the issues created by our lopsided race and class system in a contemporary format, "Death of a Salesman" takes us back to a different time, before technology booms and before happiness dissolved at the intersection of family and hyper-materialism. Success, which we will never truly have, is dangled in front of all of us like a carrot on a stick that we will continue to reach for.

Black people in the 21st century are still fighting the same battles and are in need of that blind American optimism. To me, that's what makes "Death of a Salesman" real and relevant today. Watch a portion of my favorite moments from our interview here or read our conversation below. Pierce talks about why the stage remains his first love, shares insights on the place of "The Wire" in society 25 years later, and why it was important for his father to see him play Willy, as he did on opening night. 

"Here's a 97-year-old Black man who had seen it all and he's watching his son on Broadway. Even at this point in his life when he was so adamantly against me becoming an actor, and it was out of love," Pierce said. "I look at my forefathers and mothers who have loved this country so much in times when this country didn't love them back. I said that to my father on opening night. He loved this country when this country didn't love him back."

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations on the success of the play. One of the things that makes me love theater is when an actor, such as yourself, can take that role and truly make it his own.

That's one of the challenges. One of the great things that always makes me come back to the theater is there's no filter. It's just you and the connection with the audience in a live and living space, and take on the role and try to do as much as you can with it.

You portrayed Willy with a different type of energy, perhaps I'd call it optimism. There's an optimism that I've never gotten from "Death of a Salesman" before.

No, what you may have been perceiving, or what I was trying to do, is this sort of a cultural expectation. Over the years, the 70 years of doing the play has been this dirge to death, this slow, methodical deconstruction of a man as he goes towards his death.The impulse that I had was in spite of everything, fight to the end. Out of no way, make a way. No matter what the challenge is, no matter how debilitating, no matter how final it may seem, there must be a solution. That kind of gave me a different take on the role. It energized the role for me. I felt like a captured animal. An actor came the other day and he said, "Really what I liked about what you did was you caught this fever that you couldn't shake, that just drove you." You're always looking for different ways to keep the fire going and in the portrayal of a rollover three, four month period. And that really helped me.

Willy catches a fever of not optimism, but trying to figure out a way to combat these impenetrable obstacles that are placed in front of him no matter what, trying to get through it. I recognize that as a cultural thing in the African American community. There's nothing in the past that this economic or social or cultural system would say that we should be optimistic. Everything possible from the most minute detail to the systematic oppression that happens with Black folks. Nothing in this country, nothing in this country has ever said to us, you should be optimistic about being here. Everything has been, you should know we don't have your best interest at heart. 

"This country could have self- destructed a long time ago, except for the fact that the people who have been denied that American dream for so long still believe in it enough."

Whether it's the smallest desire that you have as a Black person to the grandest ideas that you have for a community, there have been every example placed for us as evidence, take emotion out of it, just as evidence, there's nothing evidenced that this country has said, "You know something? I want to do something to benefit your communities." All the change that has happened has come from our dogged persistence and determination. Right? Everything. And that's a cultural thing. Culture is where people and life itself intersect. And for Black folks making a way out of no way.

It's more. It seems like we're in a dangerous space now more than ever because my father had to make a way out of no way. He didn't know his father, but I'm pretty sure he was somewhere f**king up. You know what I mean? So it's like now we have that mentality, but we're in this era of hyper-materialism.

Hyper-materialism has always been there, and the play is about it. In 1949, it's a pursuit of the carrot on the stick, pursuit of a materialism, of a wealth, of something that you possess and looking for that to be the means by which you feel your happiness. If Willy Loman just took the blinders off and realized that he had this loving family, a loving woman, that he could see that he was already a wealthy man in love. He had a wealth of love around him that far surpasses any wealth that he could obtain. If he had focused on that, it would've gotten him through any of the obstacles.

What I realize now, because we are in the middle of it, this is the zeitgeist of our time that we feel in the danger of the hyper-materialism and those who do not have our best interests at heart, and just the vulgar violent racism and sexism and classism. It's our time, so we are feeling it very fervently. But you have to realize that that's an ugly part of human nature. I know that sounds so pessimistic, but it's an ugly part of human nature that has always been there. What has happened now is there are times in life and times in generations where the veil is lifted and you are reminded of the ugliness that people have towards others and that they will use the tools of culture, of economics, of politics, of power to dismantle and destroy those that they feel that they don't have the best interest out for in the sake of giving themselves power and wealth and benefit.

Death of a SalesmanSharon D Clarke, Wendell Pierce and Khris Davis in "Death of a Salesman." (Joan Marcus)It's like this poem by Sterling Brown that I always think of. There's this great line, which goes through this litany of oppressions that people go through. [paraphrasing] You've swelled out numbers with bastards, you have raped us, you have done all of that. And this is the line that always gets me: to give a few men ease. It's what it's all about. It's going to be this few men who get ease from the chaos that they brought on society. It seems like more than ever now that that materialism is there for us to combat that and all, but it has always been there.

Does the character change for you as the production is happening? Is Willy in week one the same Willy you present in the final week of a production, or does the character change as you change throughout the process?

It changes. I think what changes the most is not the core of who he is, but you have your objectives and then the task by which you go about it, that changes. I'm trying to influence another person in the scene, and over the course of time it changes because there's such complexity to Willy Loman that gives you a multitude of ways of changing. And then also what you get from the other actor. All of a sudden they change something and your reaction to it is ultimately different.

I was just thinking about this last night, over the course of just the past few performances, Khris Davis, who plays Biff, has been doing something at that moment where he asks me to release him from this dream that I have for him that is just stifling him. Let him be himself. Let him find his way. The way he's been doing it has been very effective. Normally I'm pushing back. "No, hang on, stay with me. Do it the way I want you to." He's been very convincing, so much so that it's changed the way that I approach the moment where I kind of give him his space.

You're so connected and locked into this story. You worked on it with Sharon Clarke in London before you brought it over here to the states. Where does that personal connection to the play come from?

It's the greatest challenge in my career. If someone gave you a platform like this to challenge yourself and then also do the role itself justice, to be a part of a legacy of the play that survives 73 years. And that's not for any other reason but the fact that it's one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. It's going to be effective in moving people long after we are gone. Seventy years from now, people will still be doing this play. So you leap out a chance like that.

"I learned how to act in trigonometry class. […] It's the merger of technical proficiency, your science, with the ability to improvise and be swinging and adjusting and mixing sh*t up."

I had never worked in London and I wanted to make my mark there. Then the idea of being able to do this work and where we got it to, I wanted even more people to see it. To bring it home to America, this American classic play, that fueled my dedication.

Somewhat unrelated to the play is that you're doing "Death of a Salesman" in a time where we are literally watching retail disappear. You walk into a store and there's no one there. What does that mean to you about this particular time?

I'm sure there are a lot of salesmen out there going through what Willy's going through, not recognizing their failure, not being willing to be adaptable and changing. Because everyone in the play is asking Willy to change.

Do you shop in the store or do you shop online?

I do both. But what happens is I get a fever. If one time it works online, aw, that's it. It's a wrap, man. We going to buy something every day from this spot right here. I hate to say this man, but when we were in the lockdown and in the pandemic, there was a time, I don't know if anybody else felt this, there was a time I was like, man, if we don't get a vaccine, this may be it. Either two ways, this may be an end of times event. This virus is going to spread and then we all check out, or this would be the new way of living.

The people who adapted first were the ones who thrived in that time. I remember I was in New Orleans, and there was one restaurant, high-end – we're talking about four-star restaurant, five-star restaurant – that almost immediately, they were delivering the next day. People were buying a chateaubriand meal for two costing 400 bucks being delivered at home from this high-end restaurant. It's just like what happened? They were the first ones to do it.

That's a Black American experience. 

I know, man.


McKinley Belcher III, Wendell Pierce and Khris Davis in "Death of a Salesman." (Joan Marcus)

Unforeseen pandemics, you always got to figure some stuff out.

That was the thing, the adaptability. So while we are going through these changes, those who adapt are the ones that survive. They're making a way out of no way. And that is, as you said, that is very much a part of our culture. The African Americans, I'm an acolyte of Albert Murray. Albert Murray said that we are the blues people. And the thing about the blues that people don't understand is the craziest thing about blues people is the fact that people understand the blues. I ain't got no shoes.

But the blues is not, I ain't got no shoes. The blues is I ain't got no shoes, but I'm still going to walk to Chicago. Right? In spite of everything, I'm still going to thrive. And that's something that we've contributed to as African Americans. That is our contribution to western civilization. There's been no reason why we as a group of people should have survived, and with every generation so much effort, energy, and money goes into making sure we don't survive that we have come up with every adaptable, amorphic, ever changing, soulful, swinging cultural means to combat that sh*t.

I'm glad I chose artist, man, and didn't choose scientist because the pressure to come up with a vaccine seems crazy.

But the hip thing about that, D, is the hip thing about that is the whole soulful idea of the blues person, the ideology of making a way out of no way even works with the scientists because I learned how to act in trigonometry class. The combination of great art and great soulfulness, and that adaptability comes by an understanding that it's the merger of technical proficiency, your science, with the ability to improvise and be swinging and adjusting and mixing sh*t up, trying to figure it out.

The merger of those two is the American aesthetic freedom of that improvisation within form. The nation of laws. The scientists, if they want to be scientists at the highest level, not only have to be technically proficient, but they also have to be as freewheeling and adaptable and creative and out the box and have them equally come together, emerged. We have put a stamp on that sh*t, African Americans. That's what jazz is, man. That's what hip-hop is. When cats are like, give me a beat. It's going to be steady. Let me come off the top of my dome.

The mixtape coming. It probably felt good to be in front of people after dealing all that pandemic stuff.

Absolutely. You lie awake at night, you think about what do I want to say? What do I want to write? What am I trying to create? Where have I been? Where I hope to go. Those thoughts are you as an individual. That's what theater and art should be for the community as a whole. Where we come together, turn off the lights, reflect on the story and say, all right. That's where we've been. That's where we are. Where do we want to go? Where have we failed? Where have we triumphed? And collectively come together and say, what are our values? And then we turn on the lights and walk out the door and try to go on acting. That's the role of art in society, to have that impact on the community the same way those thoughts are when there's self reflection.

What does your dad think the play? Your dad came to opening night.

It was beautiful. My father's 97 years old and he can't hear, really. So I'm really glad that the play was so visual. And even without hearing, he was just, oh man, that was a good play. I actually flew home on my day off this week and went home. It was the first time I saw him after the opening and he said, "Oh boy, that play was good. Oh that was good." And I'm just sitting there going, here's a 97-year-old black man who had seen it all and he's watching his son on Broadway. Even at this point in his life when he was so adamantly against me becoming an actor, and it was out of love.

What was his choice?

His choice was you can do anything but that, boy. Would you get a real job? You know? And I came to find out later, D, that it was because I knew my father had studied photography. This was at a time when you didn't have a camera on your phone. People had to go to a studio like this to take a picture. It was a nuts and bolts sort of blue collar job. I'm going to be a photographer, set up a shop, put out my shingle, and people would come. And then Kodak put them out of business. Everybody's a photographer now.

So he became a maintenance man, basically, a laborer, all his life. I thought he was against it because of that. Your dreams could be shattered in a moment, the world could change, but I realized it was something else. My brother showed me some photographs my father had taken in college and he had an exhibit as if he was James Van Der Zee. He was an artistic photographer. He had a dream of not just being a studio photographer, and because that dream wasn't fulfilled, I'm sure he just wanted to protect my heart. Do something steady [he would say]. I was in radio at 16. "That's good, go to school, do whatever you want to do." He never stopped me [from acting]. He just said, "I'm not going to participate. I'm not going to take you to no more rehearsals."

Then finally, I'll never forget, when I first came on Broadway, 30 years ago almost, I said, "Remember that day you said you'd never take me to another rehearsal?" He said yeah. And then he said, "I want you to remember this night too, so congratulations son." And I remembered that as I came back to Broadway here 30 years later.

That's amazing.

I wanted to give him a special gift and I did that at the curtain call.

What did you give him?

It's a pocket watch that says, "Death of a Salesman opening night Broadway 2022. Be liked." "Be liked," which is the thing that Willy Loman always says to his sons.

You said Willy Loman was the most difficult role you ever had to play.


However, push back to "The Wire," you had to play a detective that didn't really solve that many murders.

I had a nice clearance rate! I thought we did a pretty good job. If it wasn't for McNulty just adding all of that to our list just making up murders and the serial killer and everything. He did a pretty good job. I was with Lester when we figured out the houses had bodies in them. 

"The Wire" is the canary in the mine. We have not listened to the cautionary tale that it was."

He got the credit though.

Yeah, he got the credit.

Because he played with toys and all that.

Yeah, he played with the toys. I felt as though I had a contribution because of the connection that I had with Omar, which is a reflection on why most cops, Black cops, become cops, which was like, "Hey man, you know all this criminality is not our community, right? But we disproportionately suffer from it the most." 

That's most powerful scene, arguably for me.

That whole thing was about really trying to explain to him. We're the same, our community: 99% of the people are some hard-working Mr. Joes, Miss Annes who get up every day and go to work. Underpaid, overly worked and you ruin it for them. I got that from most of the cops I met. Most of the Black cops said I became a cop because I knew who those knuckleheads were. Right? And I'm saying, I understand your impetus. You're in an underground economy because you're being shut out of another economy.

Let's make a way out of no way in a different way, not in this criminal way. And so that's why they became cops, and I wanted to reflect that. That was the significance of Bunk, no matter what my clearance rate was. I may not have solved every murder, but I actually made Omar think twice about it.

"I may not have solved every murder, but I actually made Omar think twice about it."

"The Wire" is 20 years old now. How do you think it's aged?

Unfortunately, it has aged too well. I say unfortunately because to this day it is as significant as it was when it came out. And the only reason is because we have not learned the cautionary tale that "The Wire" was all about that this drug war is just another way of criminalizing folks to put them in a system that those who do not have our best interests make a shit load of money from them. Right? Most people don't understand that if you put people in the system, there are those who reap the benefit from it because we have privatized the criminal justice system.

Every aspect of it. I got a cousin who's paying like $250 a week to be on home monitor.

Yeah, you got to pay for home monitoring, you have to pay restitution, no matter what your crime is, restitution. Then you're on probation so it means you can't even leave a subscribed area. So wait, I got a job over here, which is more, but now I'm subscribed to just this area. I can't even go over there and get that job unless I get approval to go there. And if I ever have contact with a police officer, if he's just saying, "Excuse me, what are you doing walking down the street? Let me see your I.D." or whatever. And all of a sudden they find out you're on probation and here you are on 30-something street and you're not supposed to be in the 30s, you can only be in the 40s.

Now you going back to prison. If I own the prison, every time I fill a bed I'm getting a thousand bucks a head. If you privatize prisons in a capitalistic society, the only way I make money is if I have prisoners. In Louisiana, that's where I'm from, they don't even try to disguise it. The prison lobby does everything possible to kill any education funding, any education reform because they know education will destroy their criminal class.

If we educate people, they're not going to be prone to do crimes, which we want them to do and then we can put them in prison so we can make so much money. I mean, we sit just a few miles from Rikers Island, which is one of the biggest criminal enterprises there is. You go in there, you don't have any money, you can't bail out.

Everybody's against cashless bail. Oh, you're letting criminals out. Most of the people in there, 80%, have not been convicted of a crime. They're sitting to wait for their day in court so that they can say be proven oh, I'm innocent, but I've been in jail for two years. Two years, people don't realize it. They accept that. If we accept that as a society, God damn us. Right? If we've gone there, but espoused innocent until proven guilty, you are innocent for three years while you sit in that prison and then we're going to let you out. And we've destroyed yourself that you take your own life like that.


The 20-year history just shows us that "The Wire" is the canary in the mine. We have not listened to the cautionary tale that it was. And we're spiraling down into a self-destructive spiral until we understand and until we reform it. It's not reforming it for them. It has nothing to do with me. It's everything to do with you. It's our society. If you're in a boat, you can't sit here and go, you got to hole on your side. I'm dry over here. No, we're all going to sink.

You show us the loss of the American dream in "Death of a Salesman." What is the American dream now, to you? Is it still a thing?

For me, the American dream is not material. Along with all that pessimism that I've just espoused for the last half an hour, there's also the examples given from so many people over the course of the history of this country that there are those who have a thought of seeing a vision of us living up to what we espouse on paper. Right? Liberty, equality, pursuit of happiness for everyone, a true democracy.

I think of the slavery revolts, the real insurrections that happened on plantations on the Mississippi River. They have more African American insurrections on plantations than we were taught about. I think of all the people who put together the blueprint of fighting Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights movement, not only the marches that the SCLC put together like Dr. King and Dr. Abernathy and the Nonviolent Student Committees, but I also think about all the lawyers and the spiritual leaders like Henry Thurman and Thurgood Marshall.

"There are times in life and times in generations where the veil is lifted and you are reminded of the ugliness that people have towards others."

Just blocks from here at the New York Public Library Marshall sat there and came up with a strategic legal plan that they learned at Howard Law School. Paulie Murray she was always saying, this is the way you should go about it and all the men in her Howard Law School class were like, no, no, no, no. We got to attack it from this way. And they realized when they got out, oh, she was right. And they used that. And that was the basis of Brown vs the Board of Education. The strategic plan is to go for all those institutionalized racist ideas. I think about that and I think about Stacey Abrams now and combatting voter suppression with voter enrollment. Swell the numbers. You know we can do this. She brought more people onto the roles in the last election than anybody had in the past.

I think about the Indigenous people and all the motives that they have now. The Cherokee Nation that now is holding the government to a 19th century agreement that they haven't lived up to.

We have so many examples of people showing us a blueprint of how to fight that I'm encouraged. And that, for me, is the American dream. The American dream is I look at my forefathers and mothers who have given this country, have loved this country so much in times when this country didn't love them back. I said that to my father on opening night. He loved this country when this country didn't love him back. As we fought victory abroad, the Double V campaign, victory abroad against fascism, as we fought fascism here at home.

America owes a great debt, great debt to all of those people. We're asking for equality and not revenge, for that alone. This country could have self-destructed a long time ago, except for the fact that the people who have been denied that American dream for so long still believe in it enough to say, we're going to show you how to really pursue it. That's an amazing thing. They taught us a religion that they disgrace, and we lift it up in a divine way. They should be very thankful that we are given an example of a true American aesthetic.

We're thankful for your words. Tell everyone where they can see the play.

You can see the play "Death of a Salesman" at the Hudson Theater almost every night, except Mondays, until Jan. 15.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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