Intiman Theatre's adaptation of Arthur Miller's All My Sons is set in Seattle's historic black neighborhood, the Central District. The year is 1947, and the story centers on a black American industrialist, Joe Keller (Chuck Cooper), who is under a dark cloud of suspicion. During the war, his company sold bad parts to Boeing, and these bad parts resulted in bad planes, and these planes crashed and killed their pilots. The industrialist and his partner were arrested for murder, but the industrialist managed to beat the charge by placing all of the blame on his partner. Though he is free, everyone suspects Joe is guilty.
The play opens with the cloud of suspicion striking down a tree in Joe's front yard. Joe's wife, Kate (Margo Moorer), witnesses the stormy destruction of the tree, but her soft mind immediately thinks it has something to do with her eldest and missing son, Larry—he has been MIA from the air force for the past three years. Kate has another son, Chris (Reginald André Jackson), who works in the booming family business. Chris, however, is not a man of the hands but of the head. He is more cultivated than his productive and money-proud old man.
Joe and his son Chris echo the old split between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois. In the 19th century, these leaders represented two distinctly different directions that the former African slaves could take to the promised land of American prosperity. DuBois wanted a focus on the humanities and intellectual advancement—more books, more lawyers, more philosophy, more arts. The betterment of the black race was, for him, a spiritual mission. Washington saw things the other way around. He wanted to build schools that focused on technical knowledge—making machines, growing crops, building homes. Washington saw black betterment in practical terms. For reasons that would take too long to explain here, the two positions were never reconciled.
Director Valerie Curtis-Newton (she is also a UW drama professor and artistic head of ACT Theatre's Hansberry Project) relocates the structure and tension of this historical split into the heart of the relationship between the black father and his son, a Washingtonian Joe and a DuBoisian Chris. Joe is the Washingtonian ideal of resourcefulness: hard work, practical know-how. Cooper performs this role with terrific exactness: At every moment, he emanates Washingtonian pride and commitment to industry, hard work, wealth accumulation, and domestic stability. His son, on the other hand, is bookish, thoughtful, and committed to the higher development—justice, compassion, and the rule of reason. Jackson's performance effortlessly expresses this gentler side of the black American project. (There is not a single weak performance in this adaptation.) The clash at the end of All My Sons is, at one level, between father and son (oedipal), but also between Washington's way of thinking and DuBois's way (dialectical).
All My Sons was not written with Seattle or black Americans in mind—Miller set it in the Midwest and in middle-class white America. But none of this matters one bit. And it is here that the real greatness of this production stands. True, we will not find in American history a single black American running a factory that sells airplane parts to the US military, but this truth turns out to be the fiction. The reason why: Through the fiction of Cooper's convincing performance of a black industrialist, we see the truth that was not an actuality—the truth of a living and breathing black industrialist. What resulted instead from the social and historical barriers of the time was the fiction: No black person was a major industrialist in this society, even one as bad and corrupt as Joe, a man with a lot of blood on his hands. Real history, then, contains the fiction (no such thing as a black industrialist), and this adaptation contains what is true (a black person can be an industrialist).