American Son – What Does Black Look Like?

It’s pouring. We hear the rain some ten minutes before lights go down and the curtain rises on a Miami police station at 4 a.m. Derek McLane’s Set Design is forbidding. The waiting room contains not a single element of decoration. In fact, cinder block corridors leading away from our point of view aptly make the space look like part of a maze. It turns out to have been during “the Jim Crow era” and has areas formerly used for segregation.

Kendra (Kerry Washington) is alone and about as anxious as a mother can be when her son’s been missing since the day before. Eighteen year-old Jamal drove off (after an argument with her) and is uncharacteristically not answering telephone calls. Pleading, angry, and conciliatory, Kendra keeps punching in his number.

Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan

There’s been an “incident” with the car about which she can discover next to nothing. This would be scary enough were Jamal a white boy, but being black in Miami adds additional risk. Kendra is African American. A well spoken, upper middle class teacher at the university, she was raised on the wrong side of the tracks and is hyper aware of worst case scenarios.

Officer Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan) goes by the book. There’s only so much he knows, only so much he’s supposed to tell Kendra. She’s ceaselessly distrustful and contemptuous, mostly at top volume – yet we’re of course, on her side. Young Larkin thinks of Jamal in terms of negative clichés. That he keeps telling the distraught mother he understands provokes fury. “Do YOU have a back son?! NO?! Then let’s skip the empathy tactic.” She must, he insists, wait until Lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee), arrives to be fully appraised of the situation.

When Kendra’s estranged husband Scott (Steven Pasquale) shows up, Larkin takes him for Stokes whom he’s never met. Looking for commiseration, the policeman says he’s been trying to keep the natives at bay until cavalry arrives. Scott is white.

Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale

This is the first but won’t be the last time our theater audience moans. Unlike his wife, Scott is sure Jamal will appear shortly and they’ll retire to Denny’s for “a teaching moment.” Though also furious at being kept in the dark, as an FBI agent he understands protocol. His methods for securing updates are better received.

Almost at once Kendra and Scott are “at” one another. Scott thinks his privileged boy can be kept above the fray and has strong-armed him into entering West Point. Kendra realizes that attending posh schools with few other black boys only postponed Jamal’s current awareness of and sharp reaction to society’s hostility. The example of Eric Garner is raised. (Garner died in Staten Island, New York, after an NYPD officer put him in a chokehold for about 15 to 19 seconds while arresting him.)

His mother is convinced Jamal’s corn rows and gangsta clothing are, in fact, signs of anger at Scott’s leaving. Recriminations fly, yet one also sees signs of deeper bonds. Unpremeditated use of Kendra’s nicknames is touching.

By the time Stokes arrives, Scott has been so provoked his steely demeanor erupts the very moment the lieutenant rounds the corner. Adding a new dimension, Stokes is a cynical black man dealing on a far too regular basis with presumptions and fear prompting racial tragedy. His point of view shifts narrative. Cue audience gasps. Though experiencing events through the history of one highly invested couple increases empathy, subject matter here is far broader. It also reaches a thoroughly discouraging conclusion. With Jamal’s parents we learn, in potent parentheses, what occurred.

Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Eugene Lee

Playwright Christopher Demos-Brown, who is white, has authored one of the most articulate, insightful, persuasively balanced pieces you may ever see on racial status/issues we experience today. Details are specific and jarringly real. Intentions go awry. Jamal is caught between a rock and a hard place. Kendra and Scott’s complex relationship is beautifully illuminated.

By all rights, this should be Kerry Washington’s Tony Award. Stripped of Hollywood trappings, the actress presents an unabashedly raw portrayal. Tension never leaves her body; she pulsates with emotion, mind whirring almost audibly. Pushing Scott away without touching him is visceral. It might have been interesting to see a crack in the character’s dogged trajectory, but as written, Washington is vigorously committed.

Steven Pasquale gives us a man torn by provoked separation and trying to be a good father against societal odds. Both his profession and circumstances require equanimity making Scott distant, while also paving the way to believable loss of control.

Jeremy Jordan’s Larkin is less well developed, but arrives redneck and obtuse. As John Stokes, the excellent Eugene Lee cuts through verbiage and emotion with almost bloodless certainty.

Director Kenny Leon delivers unremitting apprehension and masterful timing in a play that would deflate with anything less. Every actor has the breathing space to think/consider, remember, respond. This is as natural as it gets in contemporary theater. The single moment of violence is unexpected.

Photos by Peter Cunningham
Opening:  Steven Pasquale, Kerry Washington,

American Son by Christopher Demos-Brown
Directed by Kenny Leon
Booth Theater
222 West 45th Street
Through January 27, 2017

About Alix Cohen (723 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.