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Wendell Pierce on the role of a lifetime in ‘Death of a Salesman’

Wendell Pierce is set to star in the revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway. (Edmund D. Fountain for The Washington Post)

Wendell Pierce, 58, is an actor and activist best known for his roles in the HBO dramas “The Wire” and “Treme,” and more recently in Amazon Prime Video’s “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) This fall, as “The Wire” celebrates its 20th anniversary, Pierce will star in the revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” becoming the first Black actor to take on the classic role of Willy Loman on Broadway. Pierce divides his time between New York, Los Angeles, and his native New Orleans.

I am amazed at how “The Wire” continues to find new audiences 20 years later. When you were making “The Wire,” did you have any idea it would have this type of staying power?

No, when we were making it, we didn’t. Almost every year we had to wait to see if we were renewed. I remember one particular year David [Simon, creator, writer and executive producer,] had to turn in six spec scripts before they gave approval. When we first saw it, it was so new and innovative in the way it told stories that I distinctly remembered telling Sonja Sohn and Andre Royo — we were watching it together — Save your money. Cause this s--- is going nowhere.

But by the end of the run we knew that we had a following. And like any good novel, it would have staying power, which is what [Simon] was attempting to do — a novel for television. Twenty years in, it pleases me to know that people are sharing it generationally with their kids who are now of age. I meet someone almost every month who is watching it for the umpteenth time, and to see it being studied around the country in academia is really an uplifting thing because it was the canary in the mine. It was a cautionary tale of how the dysfunction of America’s institutions can be crushing to the individual and self-destructive to the institution itself. And are we not witnessing that now?

It’s interesting to hear you say that he wrote it as a novel because that’s what it felt like. The whole time I was watching it, I kept saying, “This is literature.”

David said that from the very beginning: As actors, I want you to know this is a visual novel, and you’re not going to be in every chapter. You have to allow me to develop the chapters and develop places. So be patient. I know you’re so accustomed to a beginning, a middle and an end of regular television — cop shows in particular. The case is introduced, you investigate the case, and it’s solved by the end of the hour. That’s not going to be happening here.

And it’s the same conversation he was having with the network. And I think that’s the innovation of “The Wire.” It’s the first visual novel that really respects the intelligence of the audience, and knowing, if you are truthful and authentic, the audience will stick with you as you develop story and character.

It certainly seems more popular now than it was even then. Is there any resentment that people didn’t get it when it was on?

No, no resentment at all. I’m even more proud of it. It’s a piece of art. Art is lasting and impactful whenever people come to it, and they come to it in their own time. It’s the people in the industry that were late to it. I’m sure they’re resenting how late they came to it. [Laughs.] I have no resentment. Quite the opposite. I am honored and humbled that this piece of art that I was a part of is still impacting people, ’cause that’s what makes it a classic. Something is classic when it speaks to our humanity across time and space and age and race and gender because our humanity is that common thread that we all share, and when you tap into that it will outlast you.

But to think the show never won an Emmy Award.

By the time we got to the last season, I was like, “C’mon man, don’t break the streak!” I didn’t want an Emmy. I said then the lasting testament will be: This show will be one of the most revered and critically acclaimed shows that will never have any awards, and it will just show you how shallow people’s approach to commercialized art can be. That they missed the point of the power of art. I wear it as a badge of honor that we didn’t receive any Emmys.

“Treme” was looking at the rebuilding of New Orleans after Katrina. You’re from New Orleans. What was it like working in that city, particularly at that time?

Well, if “The Wire” was a novel, “Treme” was a poem. How do you capture culture and its significance, that intersection between life and people itself? How they deal with it — that intersection is culture. We have captured that so much in New Orleans, with our resilience, our ability to adapt, how we can honor structure and at the same time be free and improvisational. You hear that in our music. You see that in our food. And that’s what [Simon] was trying to do with “Treme.” The idea of pulling the curtain back and just peeking in on life as it’s happening. And that’s what “Treme” was for me. The years after Katrina. Some kid will say what did you do in New Orleans’s darkest hour? What was happening then? There is some visual document that I can say: Watch and see. It was also the last three years of my mother’s life. So I was home and blessed with being here to spend that time with her. So I will always cherish that time.

I’ve heard you talk about the neighborhood that you come from. Can you talk a little bit about that?

I am from one of the great American neighborhoods called Pontchartrain Park. This week, our landmark placard goes up because we are now on the National Register of Historic Places. Through an ugly time in segregation when Black folks could not even go to a green space in New Orleans, except for one day of the week — on Wednesdays — Negro Day. If you were ever caught in a park, you could be arrested, and it was because of the activism of my parents’ generation and the advocacy of the civil rights movement that the city government decided to do this, so that Black folks in post-World War II could have access to this new suburbia that was happening. It was ugly, actually. Separate but equal. But we took something ugly and made it beautiful, and it became a community that was an incubator for Black talent, politically, socially, culturally.

So what Baldwin Hills is to L.A. and Sweet Auburn is to Atlanta, this Black middle class started burgeoning in the ’50s. Out of that [came] our first Black mayor, [Ernest] “Dutch” Morial, his son now the president of the National Urban League, Marc Morial, myself, Terence Blanchard, the great jazz trumpet player and composer. We all came out of this neighborhood, which was anchored by this beautiful golf course designed by Joseph Bartholomew, who designed most of the courses in New Orleans at the time and could not play on any of them because he was a Black man. He created a course, 1,000 homes around this beautiful course, just for working-class people really. But it gave an opportunity to access the American Dream, and at the same time understand that [it] comes with a price. It came with a price of years of segregation and being kept out of the American Dream, creating an American nightmare.

The revival of “Death of a Salesman”: The production was in London; you are now bringing it to Broadway. I wonder, did you ever imagine that you would play the role of Willy Loman?

I would have never dreamt that this could happen. And that makes it even more special because I stand in the shadow of so many people, for so many years — and this is the thing that really touches me: I know who have dreamed of it and hoped for the opportunity but knew they would never get the chance. Probably left this earth with that disappointment and heartache — that unsung heart song, as Arthur Miller says. And for them, I step out on that stage and in their spirit give all that I humanly can give so that their unsung heart song will be heard. Giving voice to those who were voiceless for generations. And to know that being specific is the thing that makes it universal. So the message of the play is only elevated even more and speaks to everyone in the same way that it always has. You know, people always talk about there is this interpretation that you are doing, and I say: No, I’m doing Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” I’m bringing who I am to it. In the same way that small fraternity of men — Lee J. Cobb, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy and Philip Seymour Hoffman — in the 70-year history of the play gave voice to it on Broadway. And for that opportunity, and this historic position that I am in as the first Black actor who is doing it [on Broadway], I think of James Edwards and Roger Robinson and Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson and Ossie Davis and all those men who so inspired me to be an actor. And I am lifted up on the courage and the resilience that they had. And, yes, I have fear, but I also have courage. And that’s how I approach this play, and that’s the phenomenal opportunity that I have, the phenomenal opportunity that the play has right now. It is timely. And it is timeless, and it is time that it be done.

And so the play itself is the same, but you and the four characters are Black and everyone else is White.

That’s right. Five, actually, in the family. We are the only Black characters. But it gives a new ring to the lines. There is insult that happens in the middle of the play, that people hear so clearly and I actually don’t even say it, but they hear the insult because they know the position of this Black man in 1949. The danger of being in a compromising position with a White woman. The danger of challenging a boss. The irresponsibility and shame and guilt of a man who was supposed to provide for his family, but in the face of insurmountable odds against him, he’s lying to himself and what impact that has. The shame he feels but even more importantly, the guilt of disappointing his family. Those lines just ring out: “Linda, there is so much that I want to make for you. There is a living I want to make for you. … A man can’t go out the same way that he came in. He has to add up to something.” That is a heavy, heavy burden. It’s a spiritual burden of: I am destroying the lives of my family because of my inability as a man. And that is such an investigation that Arthur Miller had in this play. That’s the reason it still speaks to people 70 years after the fact. It’s crushing. And to add to that, where we are as African Americans in 1949, when this play is taking place — is it a futile dream? Is it a pipe dream? How awful is it for you to even believe in this American Dream when there is no evidence that you should, but you still do? That’s the ultimate disappointment. A crushing disappointment.

So it is something that I have to be very careful with. I never subscribed to the idea that actors would often say, “Oh, I have to detach myself from a role.” Always dramatic. But for this one it was different, especially at this point of my career. There is a similarity and a semblance of what Willy Loman is going through. Am I the mediocre man? Are my best days behind me? Have I sacrificed my family? And am I worthy of their love? Of even having what I have? And am I losing it? And I had to, as a middle-aged man, be careful that I don’t get to where Willy gets to.

Do you feel like this will open opportunities for other ethnicities with the classics?

Definitely. I was speaking about this with a friend the other night. I’m going to burn it down. I’m going to burn down the house so we build anew, not just for African Americans. It’s so that we, as Americans and as artists of the American theater, can just take those blinders away, take those limitations away, see new art. We do not have to be defined as through the classics of every- and anybody else. I feel that I am doing this play because it’s an American classic that should be done. I’m bringing myself to it and the uniqueness of who I am and we are. But I hope that people understand that we have — with our blinders — missed many classic plays that have been written amongst these 70 years that probably never got an opportunity because of our narrow-mindedness. The lack of opportunity and diverseness means that we missed it.

I always would tell people when we did “The Wire,” when you pass those corner boys, remember he has the cure for cancer and you missed it, because he didn’t have the opportunity to take that intelligence and actually guide it a few blocks away at some research center at Johns Hopkins Hospital. But he knows how to put together this enterprise in the underground economy. It’s the same thing with this. When you see the innovations of a production like ours, think of all the Arthur Millers who were writing at the time and happened to be Asian or Black or women. So I hope to burn down a house that is limiting, so that we, as artists, are building a bigger, more inclusive house. Not just for the Black community. It’s for the American community. Look how many stories have been left out. How many “Deaths of a Salesman” have we missed? How many Willy Lomans have we destroyed? Who had a dream that ultimately [would] never be fulfilled? Had a vision that could never be actualized? And so what I hope people retain from what we are doing and while we think about expanding what our American theater is: Let’s use words of Arthur Miller. Attention. Attention must finally be paid.

Robin Rose Parker is a writer in Maryland. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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