“Everything’s coming apart,” cries Kendra, a distraught mother who’s awaiting news of her missing boy, in “American Son,” an arrestingly topical drama by Christopher Demos-Brown at the Booth Theatre on Broadway. Kendra, played by Kerry Washington, is referring specifically to her family — she and her estranged husband, Steven Pasquale’s Scott, circle each other like wary cats as they await news of their son, Jamal, in a police station — but the line resonates with a piercing amplitude. It’s not just Kendra’s family that is splitting at the seams, of course, but the culture and the country they live in.
Opening just days before a midterm election in which the topic of race — let’s not dance around it, racism — has been flung front and center, “American Son” exudes an electrically charged immediacy. You could argue that, in some of its more pedestrian talking-points exchanges, about the legacy of racism and its impact on black Americans’ daily lives, the play occasionally feels like a panel discussion drawn from any number of news stories and editorials. The media has been blanketed in recent years with stories about innocent, young (or not so young) African-American men (and women) who have been caught up, and often killed, in encounters with the police.
But it is also true that taking the racing pulse of these jittery times with such head-on forthrightness is what gives the play its powerful, ultimately shattering charge. “American Son,” acted with sharp focus by its cast of four under Kenny Leon’s solid direction, may not reveal to us anything new about what it means to live while black in America (unless you’ve been, I don’t know, digging for clams for the past several years), but it explores the experience with a clarity, probity and intensity that cannot be denied. The play is not always subtle, but in that sense it also mirrors the reality of living in a dramatically polarized America.
Washington, the radiantly beautiful star of television’s “Scandal,” seems to have willfully washed away all that radiance. Sitting in a Miami police station in the middle of the night , her Kendra appears to be both vibrating with anxiety and hollowed-out by worry, a wraith roiled by emotions she can barely contain, and doesn’t always want to. It is now 4 a.m., and her son, who has just turned 18, has been gone since 8 p.m. — unusual, even unprecedented behavior for him.
A police officer, Paul, played by Jeremy Jordan as a stolid professional who refuses to depart from the rulebook, hasn’t given her any information, except to say that it appears Jamal was part of some kind of incident involving the Lexus he just got from Scott for his birthday. Since Jamal has not responded to Kendra’s texts and calls, naturally she fears the worst, and we all know what she (implicitly) means by the worst. Young black man plus police encounter: You don’t need to have passed trigonometry to do the math.
When Scott arrives, a little more information gradually emerges (in a faintly predictable twist, he’s mistaken by Paul for the superior officer Paul is expecting, presumably because he’s white), but not enough to calm their fears, which only multiply as the minutes pass. Both Kendra’s and Scott’s anxiety is stoked by the tension between them over the rift in their marriage.
Unfolding in real time in a (suspiciously elegant) waiting room, “American Son” delves a bit formulaically into the subjects it addresses, potently relevant though they are to the state of race relations in America. We learn that Jamal has been brought up to be a high-achiever — he went to an expensive, virtually all-white private school — but has recently been hanging out with some other black kids, an expression of rebellion that Kendra blames on Scott having left the family, just as Jamal is on the cusp of leaving for a spot at West Point.
As Kendra points out rather fiercely, after living a sheltered upper-middle-class life (Kendra is a psychology professor; Scott is a longtime FBI agent), Jamal is finally realizing that the structures that have protected him from the systemic racism in the country are flimsier than he ever suspected — knowledge his parents kept from him, from love and a sense of protection.
In its attempts to stoke suspense, or ratchet up the drama, “American Son” takes a few dramatic leaps that stretch our belief to the breaking point. Scott’s violent reaction when no further news about Jamal is forthcoming seems a bald attempt to turn up the heat. But the actors keep even the more forced or digressive passages — a tender exchange between Kendra and Scott in which they recollect their first meetings and a monologue from Kendra about her sleeplessness seems particularly out of place — from falling into obvious grooves.
Pasquale, a veteran actor who has excelled in both dramas and musicals, is excellent as the staunch champion of law-and-order who cannot resist insinuating that Kendra is to blame for allowing their son — whom, she needles, he often calls “J,” because it is less African-American-sounding than Jamal – to slap a seemingly anti-police bumper sticker on his new car.
Jordan has a fairly colorless role as the well-meaning but flat-footed cop, but he imbues it with a fine, forthright sobriety. As Lieutenant John Stokes, the superior officer who eventually arrives to help clarify the situation, Eugene Lee exudes a stern but not unsympathetic gravitas, even when he and Kendra clash over whether it’s systemic racism in the police force or heedless youth who are most responsible for the spate of racially charged incidents. (Stokes is black, but he takes a dim view of Jamal’s apparent behavior.)
But “American Son” derives its depth of feeling primarily from Washington, who fills her role with all the rage, frustration, fear and anguished maternal care that a woman caught up in such a trauma would feel. Slender and petite as she is, she rivets our attention with the agonized ferocity of her presence and her staunch insistence on having her son’s apparent disappearance treated as a matter of grave significance. The sheer force of her performance has a powerful effect: After the play’s thunderclap of an ending, any qualms I had about the writing faded into meaninglessness.
As the audience rose for the curtain call I noticed that the cell phone of the man sitting in front of me had slipped under his seat. I tapped him on the shoulder to tell him, and tapped again when he didn’t respond, only to notice that he was completely distraught, to a level I’ve rarely seen at the theater.
I backed off, not wanting to intrude on his moment of private and powerful catharsis — one of the reasons we go to the theater, after all. What’s more, I was fairly distraught myself.
“American Son” opened on Sun., Nov. 4, 2018 at the Booth Theatre.
Creative: Written by Christopher Demos-Brown; Directed by Kenny Leon; Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Dede Ayite; Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski; Sound Design by Peter Fitzgerald.
Producers: Jeffrey Richards, Simpson Street, Rebecca Gold, Will Trice, Stephen C. Byrd, Alia Jones-Harvey, Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominick LaRuffa, Jr. & Co., Greenleaf Productions, Van Kaplan, Willette & Manuel Klausner, Jada Pinkett Smith, The Miami Group, Lu-Shawn M. Thompson, Act 4 Entertainment, Gabrielle Palitz, Carl & Robin Washington, Bruce Robert Harris and Jack W. Batman, Shonda Rhimes, Bellanca Smigel Rutter, Salmira & Son, Jayne Baron Sherman, Steve Stoute for UnitedMasters, Dwayne Wade, Gabrielle Union-Wade and The Shubert Organization.
Cast: Steven Pasquale, Kerry Washington, Jeremy Jordan, Eugene Lee.