This is a play that will stay with you. In American Son, Christopher Demos-Brown has written a play that takes a pick-axe to our identity as a country. FYI - it is on shaky ground. And in case you have been living under a rock and missed the repeated killings of our young black men over the past few years - this play will walk you down that lane. And not in the way that you expected. The story is about more than one young man. It is about all four people at this Miami police station. It is about all of us.
Kendra (Kerry Washington) is the mother of Jamal, who is the young man in question. He has been missing since the previous evening when he left to spend time with friends. Jamal has never stayed out all night without Kendra knowing where he was. Scott (Steven Pasquale) is Jamal's father. Scott and Kendra have been separated for four months. The separation has torn them all up and apart.
Officer Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan) has the unenviable task of being the person on late night duty who has to face Kendra. This is a very, very smart woman who will not hesitate to bust down any barrier between her and her son. Where Jamal is becomes murky ground, and the details are doled out like bird seed. Once Scott appears at the station, things of course move more quickly. Because he is guy. What Larkin does not plan on is that Scott has Kendra's back and demands every bit of information they are both due. Oops.
This is not a simple situation of waiting around for news. The rage that is the lining of this relationship slides to the surface in very short order. Every ragged edge is exposed and thrown at the other. Not only do these two resent the situation between them, they each have opposing opinions on how their son should be conducting his life. Jamal, from all information we glean, is an unusual young man headed to a prestigious academy who has created his own path in spite as well as because of his parent's influence and goals.
As the facts start to circle closer, Lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee) makes an appearance at the station and grudgingly promises to get more information on Jamal's whereabouts. He takes extreme exception to Kendra's attitude and her willingness to challenge him at his every move.
Both Kendra and Scott are reduced to their marrow as the night proceeds. There is hardly anything of them left by the time we all walk with them to the conclusion of the tale. While Washington and Pasquale take on the challenge of performing mutual open heart surgery on one another, they are not supported as well by Jordan or Lee. Mr. Jordan has the job of making the small talk of an officer who is stalling until someone with a higher pay grade shows up, and his performance plateaus early on, giving Washington and Pasquale little to play against. Mr. Lee is almost comical in his performance with exaggerated gestures and a thundering monotone. The writing is not easy here, and it needs skilled actors - which neither of these gentlemen appeared to be. These are two critical parts with lynch pin importance and it was surprising that these were the best that New York had to offer director Kenny Leon. The delicate pacing that he creates is the final element in this play. Leon's use of silence and simplicity fuels the raw situation better than any stormy display could.
As to the writing itself, there was more than one moment I wondered, "Would these two be going at each other like this in real life?" I come from a family who shuts down angry displays - so I could be way off the mark here. Besides - this is a version of reality. This is a construct created to bring us to that junction where we feel the heat instead of sitting in our easy charis once removed. In that, Christopher Demos-Brown has succeeded mightily.
(Photo by Peter Cunningham)
What the popular press says...
"Some great performances come with elaborate costumes or prosthetic noses attached. Some involve crackerjack timing or floods of tears. But the great performance Kerry Washington is giving in American Son, which opened on Sunday at the Booth Theater on Broadway, features no such decoration. The only thing Ms. Washington has to do as Kendra Ellis-Connor is bulldoze her way through 85 minutes of mounting agony as a mother whose son may be in desperate trouble."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"American Son is not well orchestrated or well made, but what Washington is doing is out of an older, more frightening ritual than the conventional Broadway play. She takes the rage, sorrow and guilt of our whole city-state and channels them into a single cry."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
"In life, there are seldom black-and-white villains. And that’s true of the flawed but relatable characters in Christopher Demos-Brown’s ripped-from-the-headlines drama American Son, which opened Sunday in a polished and starry Broadway production."
Thom Geier for The Wrap
"Contemporary issue-driven drama seldom makes it to Broadway these days, but American Son vibrates with the urgency of a necessary conversation, providing wrenching insight into fears that almost every parent of a black male child in this country must face on a daily basis. Mothers in particular. As the conduit for that alarm in a situation fraught with uncertainty and frustration, Kerry Washington gives an intense performance that lays bare her character's anguish without smoothing away her sharp edges."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"It's hard to take your eyes off Washington in this gripping new play about a woman waiting for news of her missing teenage son."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...