It has been a busy 12 months for Kerry Washington, with a key part in Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, a directorial stint on HBO’s Insecure, and a exec producer role on Sundance doc The Fight occupying her time. And while her role in Little Fires Everywhere contines to draw praise, it is only one performance of hers this years that has earned its place in the Emmy conversation. In November, she brought American Son, the critically acclaimed play written by Christopher Demos-Brown and first performed by her on Broadway, to Netflix as a TV movie. And with every passing day, its powerful story about a Black mother piecing together the details of the last night in her son’s life after a confrontation with police officers has become ever more prescient.
DEADLINE: How did the play American Son first come to you?
KERRY WASHINGTON: I had done my first play on Broadway about 10 years ago. It was called Race, and I originated a role for David Mamet. He directed and it was an amazing experience.
The producer of that play, Jeffrey Richards, he’d read that it was going to be Scandal’s final season, and he called me and said, “You have to come back to Broadway.” I hadn’t had the opportunity, because our hiatuses just weren’t long enough in network television to do theatre in any kind of significant way.
So, I leapt at the opportunity, but it wasn’t really until I read the material. At first, I was like, “No, I think I’d like to take a nap.” Because the workload on network TV is bananas. But when I read American Son, I knew there was no turning back. I knew this play had to live in the world, and I wanted to be part of making that happen. So, I came on as an actor and a producer.
Another big draw was Kenny Leon, because he was directing, and I adore him. I felt like he was the right shepherd to bring this into the world.
DEADLINE: The journey for your character in the piece, Kendra, is raw and it’s intense. Where did you find that stamina?
WASHINGTON: For me, theatre in general and this play in particular requires a bit of a monastic life. 10 years ago, I could do the play, come home, steam my throat and sleep until 11 AM, then not talk til 2 PM. This time around, at 7 AM I had a four-year-old jumping on my bed, ready to go to school. There was no staying quiet until 11 AM.
I was nervous that would distract me from the material, but actually it taught me to create more boundaries around my work. What Kendra asked of me, I couldn’t possibly do 24 hours a day. When I wasn’t at the soundstage or in the theatre, I was deeply entrenched in the joy of my life. Thank God that my family was with me in New York. In many of the ways that she was broken, I felt really blessed. I could flip and be on the other side of that heartbreak in my own life.
DEADLINE: Did it take a while to find that balance?
WASHINGTON: It did. But I also found moments in the performance that are joyful. There are moments of connection between them as a couple, and there are moments when she remembers her son as a baby. I learned also to use those moments as real guideposts. They were markings to land in some joy in the play, to be able to then go back into the nightmare. Because it really was about descending into one family’s nightmare for eight shows a week.
DEADLINE: We learn about Kendra’s family slowly through the course of the piece. But there seems to be a deep well being drawn from. How important was it for you to dig into the backstory of Kendra, and everything in her life that leads her to the events we witness?
WASHINGTON: We worked very closely with the playwright, Christopher Demos-Brown, throughout rehearsal, and I built up a very deep character history for her. I felt like Kendra had spent a lot of her life sweeping stuff under the rug, trying to make it all okay and easy, livable and doable. When we meet her, she’s actually arrived at a point where she’s saying, “Enough. I have to be the woman that I need to be. I have to be the mother that I need to be. I need to create those boundaries.” But it’s all entirely new for her. I needed to understand where her life had been to understand what she was trying to rewrite in this moment, because it’s very raw. She’s newly separated. She’s really trying to heal her relationship and be there for her son in a way she hasn’t been.
DEADLINE: All of this happened before the death of George Floyd, and the protests that were sparked as a result, but even that isn’t the latest tragic event in this ongoing struggle for racial justice, and American Son only ever becomes more relevant. Did the injustice of the world around you drive your decision to step into this role?
WASHINGTON: Certainly, part of what drew me to the role was the fact I was coming off seven years on Scandal, where I was playing someone who was an arbiter of the system. My father and I in the show, we had designed the system and we were enacting it upon people and manipulating it. To play someone who was outside of the system struggling to find agency within it was, I thought, a really good exercise and exploration for me.
I think it’s really exciting that our narratives are being drawn in this direction, because I think we’re realizing, additionally with the most recent election in the U.S. and with Brexit, that it’s not up to the system. The system only works if we’re involved. That’s how representational democracy works, and it’s reliant on us. So, rather than fantasize these powerful people making life better for us, we have to realize that we hold the power, and that if we unleash that individual power, we can create systemic change.
DEADLINE: How present in your mind were the stories of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Walter Scott, and so many more as you went through the experience of performing American Son?
WASHINGTON: I had a wall of my dressing room at the theatre dedicated to images of a lot of these young men. Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile… And women, too, like Sandra Bland. When a new incident happened, I would add pictures to that wall, because it felt to me like the play was, in some ways, a magnificent prayer to the unraveling of these injustices. I was constantly adding pictures to it, until it took up the entire wall.
Sadly, nothing in American Son is new. For me, and for a lot of people in the Black community, this has always been present. Stories like these precede the introduction of these little personal computers and video cameras we all walk around with today. And I think, for a long time, people thought that Black people were making a big deal out of something that wasn’t really there. “That person must have deserved it.” Now, because we have the power of capturing these images and this behavior, we’re seeing there’s a different reality at hand. I think that’s one of the reasons that it was so important and so fantastic that Christopher Demos-Brown put the cellphone in the play, because that’s really a part of the dynamic of how these stories unfold now.
To have some of these names be said in the play, like for Philando Castile’s name to be part of our theatrical canon and to see it in Samuel French, also felt like a service to the legacy of trying to find justice on this issue. I had a lot of those family members come to the dressing room and see those pictures; sisters and mothers. That also was profound.
DEADLINE: So much of the play is about the family’s dynamic; Kendra is Black and her estranged partner Scott is white.
WASHINGTON: One of the things I love about it is that, in many ways, the film is about how you figure out how to love somebody when the cultural divide is so big. How can we listen to each other, and learn from each other, and love one another? I think this couple, they do love each other tremendously. They are just faced with cultural circumstances that feel insurmountable to them.
In some ways, I feel like Kendra and Scott are stand-ins for us as a society. For people who are embodying inclusivity and those who are resisting it. How do we hear each other? And I think finding the surprising commonalities between us is part of the power of the medium. As a viewer, of theatre or television or movies, you can find things in common with characters you didn’t really expect to relate to. The way Christopher Demos-Brown wrote this, your allegiances keep shifting over those 90 minutes.
DEADLINE: One of the truths so seldom acknowledged about a move towards more inclusive storytelling is that there’s nothing to lose from hearing new stories, and so much to gain from finding those commonalities you speak of.
WASHINGTON: I think that’s a beautiful observation. I think we’re becoming less and less afraid to allow our protagonists to look a lot of different ways. As members of communities that are labeled ‘other’, we’ve always known that we could see a story about something that wasn’t exactly our experience and say, “Oh, I see myself in that.” To allow that shift, where white people or straight people can see themselves in the stories of a more disenfranchised experience, that is so exciting.