Willy Loman, risen from the dead

Gokash production of 'Death of a Salesman'

4 minute read

Henrik Eger: A number of African-American theater companies in the U.S., in spite of their good work, seem to attract a predominantly black audience. By contrast, your production of Death of a Salesman brought people of all ethnic and social backgrounds to the theater. How do you explain such success in appealing to a multiethnic audience?

Kash Goins: That is a result of a concentrated marketing effort, combined with a strategy to build brand awareness (Gokash Productions) amongst an audience that appreciates quality theater, regardless of ethnicity.

HE: How do other African-American theaters tend to go about attracting audiences?

KG: I think many African-American theater companies pander to the low-hanging fruit, which tends to be the African-American patrons. But I don’t think that an organization should hinge long-term health on segmentation. Business is always a gamble.

HE: How did you start building your audience base?

KG: We started this company in 2008, and our audience was 99 percent African American. The shift that you’ve witnessed is the very beginning of a long-term strategy.

We understand that initially, because of the nature of such a seismic paradigm shift, we will have to be patient with things like attendance and the financial ramifications. But, we also think that for long-term sustainability and to not fall victim to the “fad” nature of African-American based theater, this goal toward diversity will support us.

We need to attract audiences based on an interest in quality, not race. I hope that we don’t turn off the African-American audience in the process, because the parallel goal is to expose our audience to artistic endeavors they may not normally take an interest to. It’s a robust effort.

HE: Who inspired you for this production?

KG: The idea of an African-American Death of a Salesman with me as the lead was planted in my head almost ten years ago by theater director Kirk Paul.

It simmered in the background for years, and then I found out Yale did it in 2009 with Charles S. Dutton. I seem to be drawn to roles previously played by Dutton and James Earl Jones. We began our effort to present the classics, aware of the plays in that canon.

Like a moth to light, I’m drawn to characters with extreme levels of internal conflict. This was a perfect storm.

HE: Never before have I seen a production of Death of a Salesman where an overweight Willy Loman generated such energy, sweating profusely, and working himself into a stroke and a heart attack — all at once. I was convinced that we were watching the last performance ever of this master actor. What did you and Ozzie Jones, the director, do to prepare for this role and to give it such self-destructive energy?

KG: I’m losing weight! [smile] Ozzie convinced me to resist the urge to “act” and, instead, live through Willy Loman’s experience, which gave me the energy that you saw on stage.

HE: How did you connect this play that originally took place in New England with an all-white cast with Africa and with African Americans?

KG: All that we did was become intimate with the text and honor the words that were written to inhabit the world that these people live in.

The repetitions of “Africa” in the “imagination” scene were an artistic discovery in the rehearsal process that accented what Africa represented to the character. To me, it was less of a “going home” type of a thing and more about where Ben found his opportunity. If he went into a jungle in Poland and came out with diamonds, it would have meant the same thing to me.

In addition, Ozzie dressed Ben [Mike Way] in traditional African garb and accented his experience with the African drums.

HE: What did you want to convey to your audience?

This is a human experience: to want more for your life, for your wife, and for the lives of your children. It isn’t confined to a race or a geography. For that matter, nor does that experience apply to a specific decade.

HE: How do you feel about white actors taking on all-black plays, or companies that reverse roles, as in the recent EgoPo production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where all the slaves were white and the slave-owners were black?

KG: I think it’s fantastic! A good story is a good story, regardless of who is telling it. The only requirement I have is that the story is told with the passion and the clarity it commands. If there is a major conflict like someone using a particular racial slur that they wouldn’t normally, as long as the art of the piece supports it, I’m on board. Women playing male roles and vice versa — I love creativity when it’s done “right.”

What, When, Where

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Ozzie Jones directed. Gokash Productions; through August 17th at Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. www.gokashproductions.com

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