American Son is a play written by Broadway newcomer Christopher Demos-Brown. Remember that name because Mr. Demos-Brown has written a heartbreakingly relevant 85 minutes of theatre. The play on paper is about two parents waiting in a police station in Miami who are anxious about their missing son. However, watching that story unfold on stage, the purpose of the piece is so much greater than that.
American Son centers around Kendra, a mother whose son, Jamal, is missing; Paul Larkin, a newbie to the police force; Scott, Kendra’s husband and father to Jamal; and Lieutenant John Stokes. The show begins with Kendra checking her phone and calling her son every 5 minutes while trying to get answers out of Officer Larkin. As the time passes, Larkin does not budge on his “I don’t know anything, we have to wait for the lieutenant” stance. That is, until Kendra’s husband Scott shows up.
The thing I hadn’t mentioned when introducing Kendra is that she is a black woman. Now, you might think that fact wouldn’t be relevant, but it is essential to this story. You see, Scott is white, and when he walks into the waiting room, Officer Larkin begins to tell him everything he knows. Larkin’s never met the lieutenant before and would never imagine him as Kendra’s husband—because Scott is white. As Larkin is running his mouth, he makes snide comments about how the “black woman needs to calm down” (those are not his exact words, but you get the point). After Scott tells Larkin who he is, Larkin apologizes, but the awkward tension of what occurred stays on the stage and with the audience.
While at the police station awaiting the arrival of the lieutenant with more information on the whereabouts of Jamal, Scott and Kendra discuss their broken marriage, their vastly different parenting skills, and their son. This play is layered in the sense that the longer these characters are in front of you, the more their secrets, thoughts, and truths are revealed. At the same time, information about Jamal is trickled in little by little. Once the lieutenant arrives, we (the audience and Jamal’s parents) finally get some answers, but not until after the characters on stage reach a much deserved boiling point.
Kerry Washington plays a painfully honest mother in distress. She gives a performance that made me, as a black woman, so proud to be a black woman. The way she portrays Kendra as realistically frantic about her son but trying her best not to seem like an “angry black woman” is something I didn't know I needed to see on stage. Seeing that kind of woman portrayed on Broadway is so incredibly important because of how relevant she is, especially for young adult women of color who are just finding out that now that they’re not children—the world is going to act differently towards them. She’s a character I wish I had at 18.
Steven Pasquale’s Scott is a force to be reckoned with. The way he commands that stage with every word that comes out of his mouth is remarkable. His role is hard but he performs it so effortlessly. The way he is able to shift gears between aggressive and stoic is wonderfully perfect for the character of Scott, since he is an FBI agent who is missing his son in a police station. I’d assume the way he is portrayed is how an actual FBI agent would react. It felt very authentic.
Although a minor role, Jeremy Jordan makes a huge impact as Officer Paul Larkin. His microaggressions towards Washington’s Kendra really get the ball moving on the message of this play. Jordan plays the new recruit flawlessly and it is nice to see his dramatic side.
Eugene Lee has arguably the smallest and biggest role in the show. He has the least amount of lines, but the ones he has are by far the ones most led up to. He says them as Lieutenant Stokes with authority and conviction.
A prominent character in this show is the absence of Jamal. We get to see how his parents react to every minute that he’s not found and that is what is at the very core of this show. I think it’s brilliant that even though he’s never on stage, Jamal is never off stage.
I’d like to applaud scenic designer Derek McClane for nailing the nail right on the head. The police station waiting room was exactly the kind of backdrop needed for the intensity that ensued on stage. And that rain! The way the rain pitter-pattered on the window was a character all on its own, never letting up. It really added an additional layer to an already hearty production.
American Son is a well-balanced play in the way it tackles the cultural divide that seems to be so prominent in our current political climate. As the play goes on, the characters realize the divide in their cultures. However, American Son is so smart because instead of feeding into that divide, it educates and informs. The discussion Scott and Kendra get into serves as a learning device for the audience, giving us a chance to see how both sides of the divide think. And I’d like to think that coming out of this play, minds are opened and opinions are changed.
Everything about this play feels urgent and all too present in our daily lives. American Son takes the news we hear every day but don’t necessarily react to, and forces us to sit down and see it all unfold. We can’t change the channel, we can’t press the mute button, we just have to sit and watch.
American Son is playing at the Booth Theater until January 27th. You can purchase tickets here.
(Photo by Peter Cunningham, Broadway.com)