REVIEW: Kerry Washington in “American Son”
The storm starts a few minutes before curtain, and portends what is to come. Thunder and propulsive, driving sheets of rain chime in as the house lights slowly dim and that curtain rises on a cold, clinical waiting room at the back of a police station in Miami, Florida.
It’s shortly after 4am, and Kendra (Kerry Washington, “Scandal”) sits in a chair, staring into space for what becomes an uncomfortably pregnant pause—the giant windows behind her displaying a black void sliced by the frightful pace of falling rain (set by Derek McLane).
That pause, that moment, ignites a tension that will last throughout the gripping 85 minutes of “American Son”, a new play by Christopher Demos-Brown that opened at Broadway’s Booth Theatre this evening under the swift and evocative direction of Kenny Leon (“A Raisin in the Sun”).
Somehow managing to capture the phenomenon of how a crisis can happen both lightning fast and also feel like an eternity, “American Son”—an explosive drama on contemporary themes of race, policing, and justice—is a rare sight on Broadway: a new play by an unknown playwright (who practices law by day).
Ripped from our headlines—amid a constant stream of stories of black men interacting with law enforcement to tragic result—“American Son” is also piercingly of the moment, thunderously bleak, written in all caps, and indulgently depressing.
Kendra’s son, Jamal, has been missing for nine hours. A bi-racial 18 year old—described as both a boy and a man—reared among the prep school elite of Miami and on the brink of beginning studies as a commissioned officer at the prestigious United States Military Academy at West Point, his disappearance is uncharacteristic and unsettling, coming after a fight with Kendra and amid a wave of personal discovery prompted by his parents’ separation.
Low-level police officer Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan, “Newsises”), a white cop working the graveyard shift, has few answers for Kendra, a black professor of psychology at the University of Miami, as the two spar—police protocol clashing with a mother’s personal plea. Not unsurprisingly, when Scott (Steven Pasquale, “Junk”, “The Bridges of Madison County”), Kendra’s white husband who is an FBI agent, arrives, Larkin suddenly becomes more liberal with information.
It turns out Jamal has been involved in a traffic stop with two other young black men, but more details have to wait until public liaison Lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee, “Gem of the Ocean”) arrives at the station. And so, there’s not much more to do than wait as the aforementioned tension continues to simmer to a boil.
Procedural plot points aside, like “Rasheeda Speaking” four seasons ago, “American Son” is fundamentally about one disquieting question: can white and black people successfully co-exist in America?
The seeming irreconcilability of racial issues brought to the fore mirrors the irreconcilability of Kendra and Scott’s marriage and the challenges they face in raising a bi-racial son in America. Racial history and perspectives permeate every minute of this play. Kendra can’t even get a drink of water from the fountain without being reminded, by Officer Larkin of course, that there are two fountains because the building was built during segregation.
In attempting to universalize the situation through the lens of one familial tragedy, though, Mr. Demos-Brown’s blunt writing provides shorthanded dialogue and characterizations that are unrealistic and convenient—tooled for the sake of advancing arguments, and provoking the audience, rather than capturing the realism exuded by the setting or effectively serving a coherent social or political mission. Scott’s lack of facility in talking about race, as the father of an 18 year old bi-racial son, strains credulity, while Officer Larkin is little more than a walking stereotype (donuts and all).
Ms. Washington does give a devastating performance as a black mother—doing what too many black mothers in America do—living the nightmare of her son interacting with the police and not knowing the outcome. But I can’t help but thinking: what exactly is the purpose of putting that nightmare on stage, of watching another woman of color suffer so painfully?
Yes, the play’s greatest dramatic trick is lulling its audience, or at least some (probably mostly white) portion thereof, into thinking everything will be ok in the end, or at least deceiving themselves into believing so. But, of course, (spoiler alert!), it isn’t ok in the end. This is America in 2018. Jamal doesn’t have a chance. Ms. Washington’s howl at blackout is something I will never forget. It shakes the audience. But then what?
As I emerged from the theatre, thoroughly dispirited by this desolate portrait of American justice as perverted by racism, the white woman walking behind me turned to the white man accompanying her and, while lamenting how “uncomfortable” the play was, said: “My best friend is black. My family came here after slavery. I’ve just never been a part of that”.
I was tempted to scream: you benefit every single day from a system that privileges your skin color! But, of course, I am trained to be civil and nice. Internally, the characters of “American Son” struggle with the same question of how to approach the issue of policing and race: be civil and nice, or direct and forceful.
What came to mind as I waited for the Subway home was an aptly titled HuffPost article from 2017: “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People”. I take as religion that theatre has the power to teach people to look at life from someone else’s shoes—to exercise their empathetic muscles. Granted, my sample size is small, but if “American Son” couldn’t succeed in teaching that, what can? I hope that woman has tickets to see “To Kill A Mockingbird”, which, I suspect, will be much less polemical, though equally as didactic.
“American Son” would not be on Broadway but for Ms. Washington’s presence, and it is hard to take issue with its genuine desire to stir audiences by way of a visceral representation of racial injustice. In the end, though, it is only that: a representation with an all-too-familiar story and characters that are arguments more than they are people. This subject matter deserves a better play on Broadway (might I suggest Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over”).
Bottom Line: “American Son”, a gripping new play on Broadway, is piercingly of the moment, thunderously bleak, written in all caps, and indulgently depressing. Kerry Washington gives a devastating performance as a black mother living the nightmare of her son interacting with the police, but blunt writing provides shorthanded dialogue and characterizations that are unrealistic and convenient—tooled for the sake of advancing arguments, and provoking the audience, rather effectively serving a coherent social or political mission.