Audiences got an earful of Clarke’s astonishing power in “Caroline,” portraying the title character, an embittered housekeeper working in the blues-infused basement of a Louisiana Jewish family. “Death of a Salesman” reunites her with Wendell Pierce, of “The Wire” fame, who first played Linda’s besieged husband, Willy, in a production that captivated London audiences before the pandemic.
Apart from Clarke, the New York incarnation, directed by Miranda Cromwell, has been recast entirely with American actors, both White and of color. That the British actress has been able to establish such an enviable beachhead on this side of the pond fills her with wonder.
“Yeah, that’s madness,” Clarke, 56, said over a leisurely dinner recently at Joe Allen, the theater hangout a five-minute walk from the Hudson Theatre, where the revival started performances Sept. 17 and opens officially Oct. 9.
“It’s wonderful madness,” she added. “But you know, I’ve never been a star. I’ve always been a jobbing actor. And each role that comes along is always a blessing. I’m not uber-ambitious. I’m not one of these people that has a game plan.”
Not having a game plan seems to be working well, as this jobbing actor adds role after role to a résumé chockablock with British theater and television: One of her all-time favorite gigs was as a nurse who dies in an episode of the BBC’s “Doctor Who,” with the 13th doctor played by Jodie Whittaker. The leap, though, to a storied part in the American canon — previously assayed on Broadway by Mildred Dunnock, Teresa Wright, Kate Reid, Elizabeth Franz and Linda Emond — offers a new level of thrill, and challenge. Especially as Arthur Miller’s 1949 drama of multiplying financial and domestic heartbreaks has been reset in a Black American household.
“That is so exciting for me, that there will be a generation that will not only see this and be able to claim it as their own, but it will open their eyes up in a completely different way,” Clarke said. “One of the things I loved about doing it in London is that we always had people telling us that we changed the script. ‘Oh, you’ve changed the script, you’ve done something to it.’ We’ve not changed one word.”
Clarke was referring to the belief among some theatergoers that Miller’s masterwork, about an aging New York salesman spiraling into despair, must have been revised. (The play was directed in London by Cromwell and Marianne Elliott, the Tony-winning director of last season’s “Company.”)
Some elements in the revival accommodate the perspective shift — the original music by jazz guitarist Femi Temowo, for instance, transparently conjures Black culture. And according to Cromwell and others, what we glimpse in this “Salesman” is a Linda Loman as the embodiment of a vibrant Black matriarch who serves as the family’s rock.
“Sharon told me from Day One,” Pierce said, “ ‘We see the dysfunction in this family. But this will be an exhibition of Black love.’ ” He went on to paraphrase a line by the American poet Nikki Giovanni: “I hope that when I grow up that no White person ever writes about my poverty, not seeing that all along, we were wealthy in love.”
“Death of a Salesman” as a malleable dramatic template is not a wholly revolutionary concept. August Wilson’s much-loved “Fences” essentially transplants Miller’s play to Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the 1950s, in the tragedy of Troy Maxson, a Black sanitation man of thwarted sports-hero dreams. At Ford’s Theatre in 2017, Craig Wallace, an African American actor, portrayed Willy in a family of White actors. But this latest “Salesman” may represent the most ambitious attempt to underline a universality in characters who have long seemed to suggest members of a Jewish household.
Clarke’s Linda, Pierce said, is at the core of this concept.
“She shows the strength of this woman. She’s not a doormat,” he said. “She shows that the tolerance that she exhibits for the insults at times from Willy is the attempt this strong woman has in holding the family together. She is the linchpin. And that is such a cultural thing, especially for Black women.”
Clarke said she relies on a strong intuition to find her performances, whether in straight drama or musicals: “I appear to have lungs of steel,” she said, an attribute that served her while playing vocally demanding roles like Caroline, and even parts with a lighter touch, such as Oda Mae Brown in the 2011 London production of the musical version of “Ghost.” To play Linda, like Caroline, the actress said, she steps into a story and leaves it to spectators to join her.
“Genuinely, it’s about staying in my character’s truth and holding onto that,” she said, “and then hopefully the audience comes on that journey. As opposed to me trying to lasso them in. Just like, let her tell her story and let you be guided by that.”
That rule of thumb started early for Clarke, who grew up in Tottenham in London, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants. Her father was a carpenter and her mother a seamstress who loved to sing; she sewed Clarke’s costumes for the weekend acting and singing classes she started at age 6 at the Ivy Travers Dance School. “Ivy Travers was a little Jewish lady on Stamford Hill,” Clarke recalled. “She did classes on a Saturday and she would do shows.
“When I played the Baron in ‘Cinderella,’ ” Clarke said, “I looked good.”
She wanted to pursue a stage career but didn’t train at one of the elite acting conservatories that roll out a red carpet for many of the country’s would-be luminaries. Instead, at her parents’ urging, she got her degree in social work. Still, theater called: A glance at a trade newspaper one day led to an audition for director Jude Kelly at the Battersea Arts Center, for a musical called “Southside.” And there she went.
In the ensuing years, Clarke earned the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II and three Olivier Awards, London’s answer to the Tonys, including for a 2013 performance at the National Theatre in James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner.”
“She strengthens you because her choices are so strong,” said Rufus Norris, director of London’s National Theatre, who staged “The Amen Corner.” “She is in the moment at all times. She never allows you to have a false moment because she is so authentic all the time.”
Contrary to some of the anguished, rage-filled characters she inhabits, Clarke was warm, witty and eager to share at dinner — both her thoughts and her plate of calamari. (She lives in London with her wife, the actor-director Susie McKenna.) Her ease and affability are foremost in the memories of those she has worked with.
“She took care of me,” said Caissie Levy, who starred on Broadway in “Frozen” and, before that, had a leading role in that West End production of “Ghost.”
“I was early in my career of leading shows, and I was learning what it meant to be a leading lady. I looked to her to learn,” Levy added. They worked together again in “Caroline” on Broadway last year, this time requiring Levy to play Caroline’s employer in a tension-filled home in the Deep South of the ’60s.
“I definitely relied on feeling safe with her, because we were playing scenes that were incredibly racially charged,” Levy said. “It made navigating those scenes easier.”
Broadway audiences will now experience how that impulse to nurture might freshly undergird “Death of a Salesman.” It reaffirms Clarke’s sense of the significance of the moment to point out that she was offered the part without an audition.
“It’s classic, classic, classic American,” Clarke said. “I’ve done a lot of American stuff, but as a Black actor, I never thought I’d be playing this role. It’s 2022. We’re making history doing this production.”
Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Miranda Cromwell. At Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th St., New York. thehudsonbroadway.com.