Joseph Stern is making himself comfortable on a deck chair that’s part of the backyard patio set taking up almost all of Matrix Theatre Company’s ample stage area. On October 22, Stern’s company is presenting “not just another production” of Arthur Miller’s 1947 American tragedy, All My Sons, directed by Cameron Watson.Â “The cast is ethnically mixed and we cast the play specifically that way,” Stern explains.
“The main protagonist Joe Keller (Alex Morris) is black and his wife Kate (Anne Gee Byrd) is white. Their son Chris (A.K. Murtadha) is biracial. The adult children of Joe’s former business partner, Ann Deever (Linda Park) and her brother George (James Hiroyuki Liao) are Asian. The neighboring families, the Baylisses (Anita Barone and Taylor Nichols) and the Lubeys (Maritxell Carrero and Armand Vasquez) are white and Latino, respectively.”
After establishing himself as a successful television executive, Stern founded the Matrix in 1977, intent on producing stage works that adhered to classical standards. In a July 1979 Drama-Logue interview, he affirmed his mandate “”¦that the proper actors are cast for each part, that the actors are faithful to the words. That everything be accurate and true to character, true to period.” Under the leadership of Stern, Matrix has garnered a total of of 41 LA Drama Critics Circle Awards.
About four years ago, Stern decided to take a different approach. “After 30 years of classical work, I decided to change my programming here, to embrace what I felt was the most important theme in our lives.Â I wrote my company members and asked the questions:Â When you act in a play in Los Angeles and look out at the audience, do you see many faces of color out there?Â And on a daily basis, how many people do you interact with that are people of color? Based on the responses I got and my own personal feelings, I knew I wanted to do things differently. I had seen Yellowman [Dael Orlandersmith’s play in which the characters are African American] at the Fountain Theatre [in 2005], and I wanted the kind of mixed audiences that were seeing that play to come to the Matrix.
“I talked to a lot of people, met artists of many different ethnicities.Â It took me a couple of years to figure out what I was going to do. I finally decided to do a three-play season.Â I just didn’t know at the time it would take me three years to pull it off. I had this ideal in my head and I was determined to keep searching until I had the works I wanted to present on this stage.”
In 2009, Stern presented Stick Fly by Lydia Diamond, focusing on upper-class African American characters seldom seen in the theater. Its acting ensemble won an Ovation Award, and the production also garnered LA Drama Critics Circle, LA Weekly and Back Stage Awards. In 2010, the Matrix premiered Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Neighbors, a study of racism in America, personified by an interracial middle class couple, their bi-racial daughter and a family of black minstrels in blackface who move next door. This work has been nominated for four 2011 Ovations, including Best Play in an Intimate Theater. Neighbors recently opened at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, helmed by Nataki Garrett who also staged the Matrix production.Â All My Sons is the third play in Stern’s trilogy.
“I am happy now this has taken this long to pull off,” Stern affirms. “I wanted this to be an accumulative experience for the audience. Stick Fly and Neighbors were specifically about the black experience, looked at from varying perspectives. Then I wanted to take an American classic and cast it non-traditionally — but not just throw it up against the wall and cast whatever color actor did the best audition.” He chose All My Sons because it “was perfect for multi-ethnic casting, allowing for a representation of the different ethnicities that would be so common in a neighborhood today.”
Stern had the ethnic assignments figured out before the production was cast. “I knew exactly how I wanted to cast each role.Â I knew Joe was going to be black, his wife white and his son, biracial. I wanted the fiancé and brother to be Asian, which I knew would be the most controversial casting, because of the play’s proximity to World War II.Â I also wanted the neighboring families to be white and Latino, which is common in today’s Los Angeles but not in the 1947 Midwest.”
Stern had seen one of the actors, Alex Morris, in the play Motor Trade at Rogue Machine (March 2011).Â “He has such a wonderful working-class presence as Joe.Â He brings this earthiness to the role, quite believable as someone who clawed his way up to prominence during the Depression, but still exudes the deep-rooted persona of a laborer.”Â Anne Gee Byrd, who plays Joe’s wife, also scored a hit at Rogue Machine with Joel Drake Johnson’s award-winning Four Places (April 2010).Â She is also a 2011 Ovation nominee for her featured role in the Antaeus Theatre production of The Autumn Garden.
For director Cameron Watson, who has a long history of involvement with the plays of another American theatrical icon, Horton Foote, this is his first outing with an Arthur Miller play.Â He admits that one of the most emotionally involving aspects of the production was the casting process. “I heard from many of the actors who came in to audition that they were in awe because they never dreamed they’d ever be asked to read for one of these classic Americana roles.
“There were Asian American actresses who quite emotionally expressed how deeply affected they were that they had a chance to audition to play Ann Deever in Arthur Miller’s play. And after the play was cast, that excitement of discovery carried right through into the rehearsal process.Â It was a very fresh opportunity for most of these actors.
“Because these actors are all so good, I found myself discovering the play right along with them. It has been an intricate and delicate exploratory process.Â We’ve had these great revelations and epiphanies together.Â I really believe that since most of the actors are working with material they never had a chance to do in their careers before, maybe it has opened up some things that would not have happened with a traditional all-Caucasian cast.”
During the rehearsal process Watson has come to believe he is seeing and listening to the people Arthur Miller created. He has no doubt audiences will believe it as well. “The way this family looks, and the way the neighborhood looks, takes care of itself the minute you see everybody. This is who these people are and this is how the yard looks at this point in time. Nothing needs to be layered on to the text that’s not there. The actors understand they just need to tell this story that has been so beautifully scripted by Miller. I can’t wait until we get an audience in here.”
All My Sons by Arthur Miller. Directed by Cameron Watson. Presented by Matrix Theatre Company. Opens Oct. 22. Plays Thur-Sat. 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm. Through Dec. 18. Tickets $25. Matrix Theatre Company, 7657 Melrose Avenue, LA. 323-960-7773. www.matrixtheatre.com.
***All All My Sons production photos by Karen Bellone