Months after he directed Children of a Lesser God on Broadway, Atlanta’s Kenny Leon has returned to New York for another high-profile play: Christopher Demos-Brown’s racial drama American Son with Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale. It’s about a separated couple who find themselves at a Florida police station one night trying to find out what happened to their 18-year-old son, who has gone missing.
ArtsATL’s Kelundra Smith and Jim Farmer were in New York last week for the American Theater Critics Conference and saw it. Below, they offer their take on the new production.
Jim Farmer: Hi, Kelundra. We were both in New York last week eagerly seeing some shows. For me, this was near the top of my list of productions to see. What were your thoughts?
Kelundra Smith: I have so many thoughts about this show, so I’ll start with what impressed me. I liked the hyperrealistic police precinct set, even though I could have done without the rain. I also was surprised by Washington’s performance. For Scandal fans, this is not the show to see Olivia Pope onstage. She is portraying a mother who is worried about her teenage son not coming home, all while going through a contentious divorce, so her performance is much more solemn. However, it is by no means subdued — the heightened emotion is there from the start, and that’s where things started to fall apart for me. What are your initial thoughts?
Farmer: I think it’s an effective, thought-provoking piece of theater. I have to say it grabbed me from its opening image of Washington curled up in a chair sitting in a cold, sterile police station waiting room, rain coming down hard outside. She’s confused, scared, angry — and trying to find out what happened to her son, whom she has tried to call all night to no avail. The play does an excellent job of putting the audience in her shoes. It’s set in real time, and while she has a hard time getting any concrete information, her White husband — an FBI agent — comes in shortly after, badge in tow, and instantly gets more respect, as well as some answers. It’s a very telling moment. The play has a lot on its plate, too much perhaps, but feels very timely — and much of it made me uncomfortable. In hindsight, it’s easy to pick some of it apart, but it makes for a potent 90 minutes.
Smith: I agree that it was thought-provoking and engaging from the start and that we feel the anxiety and worry radiating off of Kendra (Washington’s character). My major issue with this play is that I don’t know what it’s trying to do. Is it trying to provoke conversation? I feel like there’s a lot of conversation happening about the place of young Black men in this country. Is the White father a metaphor for all White men who create children with Black women and abandon them (thinking back to slavery and Jim Crow)? If so, the metaphor is poorly executed. Or, is this just about one family? And, if that’s the case, I have no idea why a man who raised a child for 18 years, whose child is following in his career path and is about to go to West Point, would ever assume that their child got caught up with some bad Black kids wearing baggy pants. Also, who’s still wearing baggy pants? All the young guys are in skinny jeans now.
Farmer: You’re completely right — the playwright seems more interested in starting a conversation than writing a play with a firm sense of what he wants to say. Some of it just doesn’t add up. There is a lot of dialogue in the play, and while much of what Demos-Brown writes comes across as authentic and well-observed, some of its feels speechy and easy. I could have done without the character of Officer Paul Larkin, played by Jeremy Jordan, who comes across as someone who is racist without realizing it. I think his scenes with Washington’s character of Kendra are the weakest moments of the play. I much preferred Kendra’s scenes with Pasquale as Kendra’s husband Scott and the terrific Eugene Lee as Lieutenant John Stokes.
Smith: Demos-Brown writes these scenarios that lean heavily on stereotypes to make White people look silly but then totally abandons that and lets the audience off the hook for their own bias. There’s a line in a heated argument about #BlackLivesMatter and race between Kendra and Scott (Pasquale) where he says, and I’m paraphrasing, “When you make people feel bad, they’re less inclined to help you,” as if to suggest that if Black people were nicer to White people when it comes to racism, then they’d be less apt to be racist. The night I saw the show, the audience applauded that line. It is the most irrational thing I’ve ever heard, but it is the leading argument in our country right now when it comes to race relations. There’s this thought that if Black people can just look past racism, then White people could look past race, but this is not a case of chickens and eggs. Racism came first.
Farmer: The son here is a musician, someone who has never been in trouble with the law, attends an all-White school and seems to have his future planned out. He begins to rebel, though, especially as he realizes what is going on around him, as he sees Philando Castile and Freddie Gray and many more unarmed young Black men killed by police. Despite attempts to balance the play, the White characters here don’t come across especially well, but what I liked about the play is that even Kendra makes an assumption about what she finds out about the events of the previous night that proves to be false.
Smith: Oh yes. Class and respectability are challenged in this play, especially when it comes to Black middle-class values. This idea that if you do everything right — pull your pants up, make good grades, speak proper English — then you don’t give people room to assume you’re ghetto, and therefore a threat, is all through the play. However, there’s this trend in plays that deal with race that I’m completely over where White actors will yield their performances to the Black actors so that the Black characters come off as more sympathetic. This doesn’t work for me, because it’s like the actor is judging the character as bad instead of letting the audience draw their own conclusions. Pasquale playing his character as a schmuck just makes no sense here.
Farmer: The book can use a bit of work and more definition in the supporting characters. I am torn, too, on the final scene. American Son ends with a powerful sequence, one I will remember for a long time, but it also seems a little awkward and abrupt.
Smith: Yes! I was thinking to myself at the end, Do police officers just read incident reports to families this way? It was awkward.
Farmer: I will say that I think Kenny Leon has done a fine job directing this. And although there will be some naysayers about Washington’s performance, for me, it’s what pushes this over the edge. Her rage fuels the play. You’re right — this is so not Olivia Pope! Washington is de-glammed and on stage all but a few minutes of the show. Her vulnerability and pain were palpable.
Smith: I won’t argue with your statement about Leon’s direction. This is some of his best work; I just wish he was working with better material.
Farmer: Playwright Demos-Brown is a trial attorney in Florida. His work isn’t subtle, and American Son feels more like a collection of ideas and themes than it does a complete play. I saw six shows in New York, though, and this is the one I’ve talked about and discussed most. It’s far from perfect, but it feels like the right play at the right time, with its share of compelling exchanges between some of the characters. I would definitely recommend it.