Theatre Review by Marc Miller - November 4, 2018
American Son 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. Associate scenic design by Erica Hemminger. Associate lighting design by Gina Scherr. Cast: Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan, Eugene Lee.
Though we never actually meet him, Jamal, the title character of Christopher Demos-Brown's American Son, sounds like a wonderful kid. Just turned eighteen, a hard study with terrific SAT scores, and about to enter West Point, though he may be having second thoughts about that. Anyway, he's a son any parent would be proud of, as his parents, Scott (Steven Pasquale) and Kendra (Kerry Washington), explicitly affirm, well into the narrative.
And that narrative is told in real time, American Son being a well-made play devoid of elaborate technical or narrative tricks. But it's also what you might call a chessboard play, one where the characters are motivated more by what the author wants to say than what their inner lives dictate. We find that out pretty quickly, as the curtain rises on Kendra, anxiously texting and leaving voicemails to Jamal as she sits in and paces the waiting room of a Miami police station which, in Derek McLane's set design, doesn't look much like one. There's a starry spotlight on Washington (Peter Kaczorowski did the lighting, including some cool lightning) and intermittent thunderstorms outside the station's picture window (Peter Fitzgerald did the effective sound, which, scene-settingly, begins before curtain). Other than the rain, American Son, which premiered two years ago at Barrington Stage Company and evidently has been worked on some since, begins in lengthy silence. Enjoy it, because it won't last.
Instead, we're going to witness a series of confrontations often bracing, relevant confrontations that shine a light on where this country sadly is and how it got there, but confrontations that illuminate Demos-Brown's politics more than they do the characters. It's 4 a.m., and Kendra's there because Jamal's late-model Lexus was "identified in an incident" involving him and two other African-American kids, and he may or may not be in custody. Details on the incident are sketchy; there wouldn't be a play if they weren't. As Officer Larkin (Jeremy Jordan) attends to her, she yells and challenges and demands to know more than he can provide. She's acutely sensitive to the racial context he's white, she's not, he comes with a predictable set of white values, and she knows it. While Larkin's trying to be helpful and even volunteers more information than he's supposed to, she detects a racial subtext to his behavior, probably correctly, and will call him on it at every turn. She may be morally justified in this, but it's not how to get cooperation from cops.
Which is the message Scott conveys when he finally arrives. There's quite a wait. It's always welcome to see Pasquale on a stage, but he hasn't a great deal to play here. Scott loves Kendra, but they're separated and he's moved in with another woman, a white one. We'd like to know more about that. "I didn't walk out on him, I walked out on you," he tells her, but their son apparently has taken the abandonment personally and reacted in what could be self-destructive ways. He's aggressively asserting his blackness, growing cornrows, hanging pointedly with a black crowd in his nearly all-white school, and putting an anti-police bumper sticker on the Lexus. "No matter how many privileges he's got," Kendra rightfully tells Scott, "the world still looks at him like it looks at me." He's going through a painful self-discovery process, she feels, and he'll outgrow it. Scott's more concerned with the practical: Did that bumper sticker contribute to the car being stopped? How will whatever this turns out to be affect their son's future?
There's so much yelling in this play. Scott yells at Kendra, Larkin yells at both of them in a clumsy effort to calm them down, Kendra yells at anyone who challenges her. Anxious mom, we get it, but Washington's performance grows a little monotonous it's all loud. When Kendra and Scott share a happy domestic memory near the end, it's a blessed relief. Jordan, who has aged noticeably since Newsies, blusters on and off and effectively embodies a beneficiary of white privilege too clueless to realize it. Pasquale is matter-of-fact and upright, frequently seeming like the only adult in the room. But Scott's actions and reactions are predictable, he's not a deep or idiosyncratic character none of them are and this actor can't bring much more to the role than Demos-Brown gave him.
By far the most potent performance, in by far the smallest role, comes from Eugene Lee. He's Lieutenant Stokes, the senior officer awakened in the middle of the night to come in and wrap this case up. Polite and efficient, he's nevertheless walking in on an incendiary situation, and he does have a temper. There's not a fight director listed in the program for nothing (Thomas Schall), and if you've ever wanted to see Steven Pasquale led away in handcuffs, here's your chance. Lee's alone in creating a whole character: We see how Stokes rose up through the ranks, what terrible obstacles he faced, how he cannily fought them, and what a struggle it is to maintain civility in this racially charged environment.
He also gets a speech. Everybody does, except Larkin. They sound like speeches, and director Kenny Leon hasn't figured out how to integrate them smoothly with the surrounding dialogue. Demos-Brown is so eager, understandably, to get complacent white audiences to face up to the racial divide and be more conscious of how the world looks on the other side of it. Tamir Rice and Eric Garner are invoked, as why shouldn't they be, and the action rushes to such an explosive conclusion that the audience, still processing what happened, was too stunned to applaud much. The America this American son lives in is unfair, and it's hampered by a power structure that resists change. And if American Son peddled that message with stronger characters and less chess-piece-moving, it might reverberate more loudly. What Demos-Brown has to say needs to be said. How he says it is something else again.