Kerry Washington carries the weight of a nation on her back in American Son, and I’m tempted to say this fine actress makes it look easy. But that would be glib and wrong: Easy is nowhere to be found in her transformative performance of a mother awaiting news about her missing son, news that one way or another will change her life.
More specifically – and American Son, opening tonight at Broadway’s Booth Theatre, thrives on specifics to make its points about the national – she’s the black mother of a 6’2, 180-pound son who wears baggy jeans and his hair in cornrows and has a “Shoot Cops” bumpersticker on his car, a car that the mother has been told by police has been involved in some sort of incident. Washington’s Kendra will spend the wee hours of a June night in a Miami police station waiting for the details that come torturously slow.
Right about now you might have started to fill in the narrative blanks I’ve left out, imagining any of the “ghosts” name-checked in this play – Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown – and while those names inform much of the background here, American Son makes clear that each man’s story, including the fictional one told here, is his own. First-time Broadway playwright Christopher Demos-Brown, under the direction of Kenny Leon (Tony winner for 2014’s A Raisin in the Son, TV’s Hairspray Live!) keeps us off-guard until the last second – and NO SPOILERS will be even hinted at in this review.
But I can describe the premise. First, though, I should say American Son is no masterpiece. It’s flaws are significant. American Son, like Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, struggles mightily to balance the rigors of effective, convincing drama with the blunt urgencies of agitprop. The Normal Heart succeeded.
So, the set-up. Kendra Ellis-Conner (Washington, no hint of her Scandal glamour) sits alone in some drab interior waiting room of a Miami police station (astutely rendered by scenic designer Derek McClane). She’s desperate to find her son Jamal, knowing only that his car has been involved in some sort of police incident, though even incident sounds more definitive than anything the young, white newby cop (Jeremy Jordan) is willing or able to offer up.
While young Officer Larkin blithely and nicely asks questions he has no clue are loaded – does Jamal have a street name, gold teeth? – Kendra’s annoyance begins its build to fury. She’s a college professor with a Ph.D in Psychology, her bi-racial son walks like a jock but can recite Emily Dickinson. Jamal, whose dad is a white FBI officer, is a prep school student headed to West Point. The only stereotype staying true to form in this room is one pointed out by Officer Larkin himself – he likes donuts.
We learn more – even while Kendra doesn’t – when estranged husband Scott (Steven Pasquale) finally arrives. Kendra is down the hall getting water – the building is so old it still has two side-by-side Jim Crow-era drinking fountains – and Scott is mistaken by the young cop as a fellow officer on the case. Larkin babbles about the three African-American kids involved in the incident and how the “bitch” down the hall is going all ghetto on him.
Demos-Brown uses the brief exchange that passes between the two men – Kendra returns for the tail-end of their conversation – as an indicator of how race and gender charge every encounter we witness in American Son. Pasquale’s Scott keeps a blank expression as the young officer insults his wife, whether out of some thin blue line bond or because he wants the information, or both. Kendra is sickened by it either way.
From there, the one-act, 80-minute American Son sets about its pattern of varying conversations with varying participants – Kendra, Scott, the officer and, late in the play, an African American lieutenant (Eugene Lee), whose race does little, if anything, to bridge the chasm Kendra feels between herself and the men in this room.
None of those chasms are wider than the one that separates Kendra and Scott, a divide so vast we’re never really convinced these two people could have lived and loved together for 17-years-plus. Despite his love for his son, Scott has always called the boy “J” because, as Kendra suspects, Jamal just sounds too black. Both husband and wife reveal things during the course of this night that, by even the most generous allowances, seem unlikely to have remain buried so long. Has Kendra really never told her husband of a defining childhood incident that she mentions now? Could Scott truly have been unaware of the terror that has jolted his bedmate awake each and every morning since the birth of their son?
These aren’t small inconsistencies, nor are they rare, and despite Leon’s fluid direction and the robust performances, they keep the play from coalescing into the fully realized family drama it might have been. But as a cri de coeur, from a mother, for her child, for others like him, for her country, American Son screams just as loud as it should.