James Black Actor-Athlete Taking on the "Monster of a Role" as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman

You probably read it in English class in high school or college. Maybe you trudged through it or just read the SparkNotes version. Or maybe you were enraptured, caught up in the story of a salesman and his family so tied into knots by their version of the American dream, its hopes and disappointments.

You might even have seen it on television one night. But the Alley Theatre is betting that unless you've seen it in live theater, you haven't experienced the full power of the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Death of a Salesman, one of the most important plays ever written.

Next week, veteran Alley Theatre company actor James Black will be onstage as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman -- as he describes it: "a humbling monster of a role."

"For a stage actor, it's one of those defining mountain peaks, that if you're lucky, you'll get an attempt to scale," he says.

And it didn't matter to Alley Artistic Director Gregory Boyd, who directs the work, that the play was written in 1949; he thinks it is far from outdated.

"Arthur Miller's plays have the ability to embody the public issues of the day -- always translating them into terms of the private conscience. Death of a Salesman has never stopped doing this since it premiered. And while there is never a bad time to revive it, it is so strongly relevant now, and it shows itself to be, unlike any other play I could name, a deep dream inside our collective American psyche," Boyd says.

"We are a nation of strivers, we're ambitious, the culture encourages us to measure ourselves by how much money we have. Now, in the throes of financial crises and millions out of work, and millions in foreclosure, it surely hits us very hard. And yet it transcends us too. It is so scary and beautiful and true."

And Boyd knew that he wanted Black in the lead role.

"James and I have done a number of Arthur Miller plays together -- The Crucible and After the Fall -- and he has played in View from the Bridge at the Alley, too. But this one was always on our list to tackle. It is his 25th season at the Alley, and I thought that was a good exclamation point in his work here -- a good reason to celebrate by asking him to take on this giant," Boyd says.

"He's not an actor afraid of big roles. Quentin, in Miller's After the Fall, which he owned in our production, is one of the longest roles in modern theater. On the other hand, there is nothing quite like this part. You need to be an athlete, and you need to have huge reserves of power and emotion -- because as Willy Loman, you leave a lot of yourself on the stage every night," Boyd says.

Black has never been in any production of Death of a Salesman, but he is well versed in Miller's work. Besides The Crucible (he played John Proctor twice) and After the Fall, he was Joe Keller in All My Sons, and Eddie Carbone and Marco in two productions of A View from the Bridge.

Unlike many actors who won't study what other actors have done in the role, Black says he's never had that hesitation. "I love watching what other actors have done with a role I'm about to undertake. I've never really been skittish about that, the way some actors are. Some are afraid that they will be overly influenced, and subconsciously imitate. I'm open to all the help I can get," he says.

Asked what he hopes to bring to this particular production, Black was pretty disarming.

"The primary responsibility of an actor is to, as Cagney said, hit your mark, look the other guy in the eye and tell the truth. Tell the truth of your character in his or her given situation. If you go into a production thinking, 'How can I redefine this role, how do I leave my mark on this play?' you're setting yourself up for a performance full of self-indulgence and falseness. You're thinking about your effect on the piece, and not the effect of the piece on the audience."

Responding to a question of whether people might be afraid of attending this play, afraid it will just make them feel sad, Boyd says: "'Sad' is not what I get from it. Like certain other masterpieces that touch on the transfiguration of a human being, it is an immensely enlivening, moving and instructive experience."

And Boyd says he discovered something about Death of a Salesman when he began working on this production last spring.

"I think many people read it in school, I read it in school, and I thought I knew it well -- and I've seen many productions, though never directed it before. But when we began working on this production last spring, I quickly learned that all my assumptions and 'knowledge' of the play had to be put aside. The play means something else to me now.

"That's the mark of a piece of lasting art. It can stay the same (or at least, the words on the page don't change over time), but one's reactions to it, at levels emotional and real, cerebral or spiritual, do. Mine have. So I'd say that there are many who haven't seen it live, of course, but even for those who have, it's a different play today."

Asked to assess its lasting value, Boyd says:

"I think it is one of the greatest plays ever, anywhere, anytime -- in the world, the universe. It is true that it is also a particularly American play, even though it is performed everywhere, in many languages. And everyone seems to get it. Would I put it at the top? Today I would."

Death of a Salesman has previews Friday, September 28, opens officially Wednesday, October 3, and runs through Sunday, October 28, on the Hubbard Stage at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For ticket information, call 713-220-5700 or visit the theater's website.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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