By Bill Hirschman
Maybe it’s walking under a Times Square marquee with his name emblazoned overhead. Maybe it’s seeing years of development memorialized on that distinctive Playbill cover. Maybe it’s being asked for his autograph at the stage door. Maybe it’s the unstinting praise from seasoned Broadway professionals.
Some new level of realization keeps hitting Christopher Demos-Brown on the cusp of becoming one of the first South Florida playwrights to have a work on Broadway when his racially-charged American Son opens Nov. 4 at the Booth Theatre.
Recently, The New York Times sponsored a public panel discussion for its Times Talk website about the play with stars Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale and director Kenny Leon. And in the center, being asked probing questions, was the Miami-based playwright, as happily stunned as anyone.
“It’s like I’m watching and I’m going ‘Holy crap! That’s me!’ It’s wild. It’s still not all sunk in,” he said in a phone interview earlier this month as he was in New York adding speeches and tweaking the rhythm of lines.
American Son is a 90-minute play in real time about a black mother and her estranged white husband at a Miami police station in the middle of the night to find out what has happened to their bi-racial son who was arrested on a traffic stop. Set in a time of #blacklivesmatter and racially-tinged violence, it explores universal parental fears, culturally-influenced expectations, and divergent views of race relations.
The play premiered in 2016 at the nationally-known Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts, one of the few of his works not to bow in South Florida. That led to it being championed by Jeffrey Richards, one of New York’s leading producers. Richards hired director Leon who worked extensively with August Wilson. Leon and Jeffrey brought on the star of TV’s Scandal, Washington, both as the lead actress and one of a team of producers that now includes Shonda Rhimes, Jada Pinkett Smith, Gabrielle Union-Wade and South Floridian William Fernandez.
Demos-Brown has a perpetually affable self-effacing mien, frequently citing luck as a factor in his success. But anyone who has met him senses an incisive intelligence, clear-eyed perception, quiet wit and laser-sharp analytical skills.
Actress Karen Stephens, who starred in an early reading of American Son among other projects, said, “He is incredibly smart but he doesn’t rely on that. He asks questions and weighs the answers against information he already has. He’s very generous with actors in the workshop process; always remaining open to the contributions and experiences of those he is working with.”
His new colleagues like Leon, a Tony winner for the 2014 revival of A Raisin in the Sun, are equally quick to praise him in almost embarrassing terms.
“It’s great to see … on the Broadway stage, someone who understands the authenticity of culture,” Leon said. “If you notice poetry in his writing and just the structure, maintained at over 90 minutes, this thought-provoking piece is amazing and I think it’s pretty special.”
Leon said, “When I look at him… I see a little bit of the emotional impact of Fences. I see a little bit of the poetry of Lorraine Hansberry. I see a little bit of the arc of Talley’s Folly in 90 minutes. So you can put them together, August Wilson, Lanford Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry and you come up with Christopher Demos-Brown. I’m not comparing him to any of those. I’m just saying that those are great writers and I think Chris has a little bit of all of them in his approach.”
It is lost on no one, least of Demos-Brown, that this production benefits, sadly, by its resounding resonance to this precise moment in the country’s social and political zeitgeist.
“When I wrote the play a couple of years ago, I didn’t think it would be timely for that long and I frankly hoped it wouldn’t. But it has only gotten more so because of the issues of race and inclusion and identity, and the driving force behind our politics. It used to be something where (some facets in the work) came into play as dog whistles, now they’re bullhorns. Unfortunately, I think some of the issues in this play are going to be around for a while.”
Stephens, who played the mother in the 2015 staged reading, recalled, “When I first began readings of American Son, it was right after several unarmed black men and boys had been killed by police. It was a very sensitive and emotional subject; very raw. It was also after I had someone in my own family shot by law enforcement. It was easy for me to empathize with the mother and her frustration in dealing with a system that seemed to block her need to know of her son’s well-being at every turn. I applauded Chris’ effort to write about a topic that was outside of his personal experience but borne out of his concern and desire to shed light on something that is happening in our society with alarming frequency.”
THE OBVIOUS QUESTION
The one query that comes up often is how a middle-aged white lawyer has been able to persuasively capture the African-American viewpoint.
“I pride myself on being able to write characters who don’t have my immediate experience, who don’t fit into my narrow gender race socio-economic niche,” he said. For instance, he won early acclaim in 2010 for his Florida Stage premiere of When The Sun Shone Brighter, which delves deep into the Cuban-American culture’s intersection with politics.
“It’s flattering that the first time Kerry and I talked, he said, ‘You know when I first read a script, I think I can tell when the person who is trying to write a black character is not black. And I couldn’t tell when I read this.’ ”
Demos-Brown recalled with a chuckle: “She asked, ‘How are you this middle class white guy able to write this script?’ And I said, ‘Well, much like you, Kerry, I’m talented.’ ”
He was being droll, but he’s also serious, after spending many years learning and refining his craft. “With no false modesty, I’m not bad at this. Being a 50-plus-year-old writer, I’ve done a lot of different things in my life and dealt with a lot of different people in my life and I think that experience makes a difference. I think if I was a 24-year-old kid out of Julliard, I don’t think there any way I could write this play.”
Still, his skill impresses observers — and surprises them, Leon said.
“I took him outside after one preview because you know in the Broadway community no one knows who Chris is. So I said, ‘Chris, we have, you know, several hundred people at the backstage door who want me to sign programs. So I’m taking you out there with me.’ So I take him out there and I go, ‘Hey, guys, this is the playwright Chris Demos-Brown, and they go, ‘Oh, my God, sign my program, please.’ I think some people had no idea what this writer looked like and they went, ‘Wow, oh, I didn’t know this was a white guy that wrote this.”
Demos-Brown is maintaining a day job as civil trial attorney. But since 2008, his name has graced eight plays, most debuting at regional theaters across South Florida. Among them is Zoetic Stage, which he co-founded in 2010 as literary manager with his wife, Stephanie Demos who serves as its president; playwright Michael McKeever, and director Stuart Meltzer.
Most of his works have been Florida-based but exploring universal themes like Captiva, Our Lady of Allapattah and When The Sun Shone Brighter. They have tended toward naturalism, but his most recent at Zoetic, Wrongful Death and other Circus Acts, was a surreal satire of his own profession. All his works share a quiet passion about how people are caught up in universal issues such as Stripped, which looked at an immigrant parent. Before this, his best known work was the excoriating look at what constitutes heroism, Fear Up Harsh.
Zoetic’s Stuart Meltzer, who has directed four of his plays, digs another level deeper.
“Chris loves exploring the splintering and cracking of the ‘American Dream.’ He holds a sound standard and belief how people should be treated by a government or other people. But, all too often, society, including government and other people, can’t live up to this sound standard. Chris explores the many aspects of a failing or unjust system in his works.”
Further, “But what makes his writing translate so effectively onto the stage is that he shreds aspects of his own cockeyed ‘American Dream’ all over his plays in the guise of hope and humor. His language is painfully intelligent as is Chris. His storytelling is gut-wrenching strange yet familiar. His characters are in our own circles. Chris has that advantage of being a damn good lawyer. He writes plays like he is litigating and he is unafraid to go for the jugular.”
Along the way have been a shelf of awards including two Carbonell Awards and five nominations, three Silver Palm Awards, the Laurents/Hatcher Award for a draft of American Son and a citation from the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association for Fear Up Harsh.
Stephens, who won acclaim in Fear Up Harsh, wrote, “The common thread in the work I’ve done with Chris has been based in societal issues: a female Iraq veteran suffering from PTSD, a black mother agonizing on the whereabouts of her missing son, a Russian exotic dancer in danger of losing her child, and a play commenting on the circus-like atmosphere of the litigation system.”
Did he ever foresee it leading to Broadway? “I’ve always felt like I write for New York or London. Those are just audiences I feel like are ideal for what I write. I always felt that my goal was to have a strong regional theater and off-Broadway career. But my wife swears that I said many years ago that my goal was to win a Tony Award. I don’t ever remember saying that, but that would imply that I had a goal of getting a show to Broadway.”
Few people in regional theater see New York or Broadway as an essential affirmation of talent, but few reject its importance, especially in creating a long-term career with work being picked up across the country.
So South Florida artists, who have struggled for years for a national recognition of its quality, are smiling this season: First, American Son is the first work by a South Florida playwright to bow on Broadway, since Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer-winning Anna in the Tropics born at Miami’s New Theatre in 2002 and then mounted on Broadway in 2003. But at the same moment, his friend and colleague Michael McKeever is enjoying seeing his Carbonell-winning Daniel’s Husband having its second off-Broadway production. Miami native Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy, which played at GableStage in 2015, will preview at the Manhattan Theatre Club in December and open in early January. And finally another work written and premiered in South Florida is tentatively expected to open off-Broadway this season, although continuing negotiations require that its identity be kept secret.
THE HISTORY OF A PLAY
The play’s genesis dates back about three years. “All of my plays have as my starting point something that irritates me or bothers me. Playwriting forces you to examine them with craft and discipline.”
He continued, “I was really troubled by a lot of news in the press relating to race — and that news has only gotten worse since then.” He started having conversations about it in person and online with friends.
Then he was inspired by a passage in the book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a correspondent for The Atlantic who writes about culture, politics, and social issues. Revealing the exact quote would spoil some of the play’s events, but it detailed the emotional investment parents make in their children.
The work evolved with a living-room reading, then another at GableStage and another at FAU Theatre Lab under former Florida Stage chief Louis Tyrrell in December 2015. The next day it was performed in front of music stands to close out the National Showcase of New Plays conference of the National New Play Network. The work was presented at the South Miami Cultural Arts Center starring Stephens, actor-director Clive Cholerton, Ethan Henry and Robert Johnson.
Prior to that NNPN reading, his networking in the playwriting community led him to submit Fear Up Harsh to Julianne Boyd, artistic director at Barrington Stage Company. She didn’t feel it was a good fit, but asked if he had anything else to show her. He sent her a first draft of American Son that very much felt to him a work in progress. She jumped on it immediately.
Demos-Brown has always been a champion of South Florida’s commitment to new work, but he acknowledges the region has its shortcomings. He sent it to Boyd because very early in its development “without naming anybody, I’ll tell you I invited every artistic director down here to a reading I did down there” through the Miami-Dade County Playwrights Development Program. “A couple came and no one expressed any interest in it.” He laughed without rancor. “Part of the lesson I learned from that is that you can have a Broadway bound play and have it stuck under people’s noses in South Florida and they’re still reluctant to do it.”
Boyd mounted the premiere in June 2016 starring Tamara Tunie and Michael Hayden, and brought it back for an extra week in September.
Luck kicked in again because the theater attracts a regular influx of New York theater professionals in its audience. One was producer Rebecca Gold who works with Richards, a major player known for mounting musicals like The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, classic revivals like The Glass Menagerie, but also new works.
“Lucky for me, he’s super committed to challenging new American plays. He prides himself on introducing new people to Broadway and doing things that a little more risky.” Demos-Brown said.
In February 2017, George Street Playhouse in New Jersey mounted another production featuring changes the playwright had made after seeing the Barrington production.
Richards sent the script to Leon who recalled, “On a first reading, I thought, ‘It sounds poetic, strong, impactful…. All of my work is similar in I’m trying to figure out how to get people who are different to sit next to each other and realize we are all sort of the same.”
They knew they would need a high-profile name to guarantee a Broadway berth for a new play by a playwright unknown in New York.
“And then we got lucky that Kerry had, one, worked with Jeff before on (the 2009 Broadway production of the David Mamet’s play) Race, and two, she had just finished Scandal and was interested in coming back to theater,” Demos-Brown said.
Washington has often told interviewers what happened next. Demos-Brown said, “So, my understanding is Jeff sent her three scripts. The first was American Son, and she didn’t read the other two. She just said, ‘Okay, I want to do it.’ So that’s the kind of thing where you just have to be lucky. If it had been a year before that, there would have been no Kerry Washington.”
Her enthusiasm led her to invest in the show as a producer and bring along A-list colleagues like Rimes.
A DIFFERENT WORLD
Having labored long in regional theater with its modest budgets, Broadway is a bracingly different experience for Demos-Brown.
“The one part of this whole process that has not been surreal to me was the first day we got into the rehearsal room. Everybody introduced themselves to each other. We sat with pencils behind our ears and wearing t-shirts and sweat pants and did a table reading. Then it was just that was perfectly normal and it was just like any other play – with Kerry Washington, Steve Pasquale and Kenny Leon in the room.”
And then came the differences that a seven-digit budget, national attention and a major star make, especially promotion. Rehearsals stop regularly for a steady stream of interviews. The star does magazine spreads and talk show appearances.
Then in regional theater, rehearsal time for an established play is about 2 ½ weeks, for a new play maybe 3 ½ to 4 weeks. If a production is lucky it has two complete run-throughs and a day or two of tech rehearsal before audiences arrive.
“We probably, by the time this thing had its first preview audience on Broadway (October 6), this cast probably had 8 to 10 run-throughs. In addition, before anybody reviews them, they will probably do about 20 shows. And the amount of tech even for a simple show, like this with one set, is four days. And when we tech (in Florida), I don’t know how many people are involved, but when this teched, there must have been 80 people scrambling around the theater.”
Serving him good stead with the Broadway process of plays changing during rehearsal is that he has learned in South Florida how plays aren’t just written, they are rewritten in one of the most collaborative creative genres in existence.
Meltzer said, “Chris and I trust one another completely. He knows me and I know him. We listen to one another. Our energies are rather different but somehow complement one another. I don’t find all his jokes funny and he thinks I speak too much in cartoon noises but it somehow works when we are in the rehearsal room streamlining a play. Figuring out moments. Trying things. Chris loves taking risks in his work as a playwright and that is a golden ticket for a director. Chris also knows that I just want to tell his story the best and most creative way possible. We do arm wrestle figuratively at times abut we love the hell out of each other and fully respect each other as artists. Chris and I also will listen to our actors in the developmental process. Lest we forget that they are in the room too.”
THE ROAD TO BEING A PLAYWRIGHT
He was born Chris Brown, but he said adopted the Demos-Brown name because “one, Steph and I hyphenated our daughters’ last names and I want anything I write to bear their names for sentimental reasons and, two, if you Google ‘Chris Brown’ you get the R&B singer who beat up Rihanna.”
Demos-Brown attended Killian High, then Dartmouth College to receive a bachelor’s degree in Russian Language and Literature in 1986. He later earned his law degree from the University of Miami, and later a master’s degree in international law from Fletcher School at Tufts University and a “diplôme d’études supérieures” from the University of Geneva in international affairs and economics.
None of which sounds like the resume of a playwright. His first theatrical experience was “some musical about Ben Franklin in elementary school,” he said in an interview with Florida Stage’s website. “The first professional production I remember seeing was of My Fair Lady at a dinner theater.” But his real interest in theater didn’t germinate until he was in college where he acted and directed a little.
In fact, he went to Los Angeles after Dartmouth to be an actor. “I did pretty well for about three years until I could no longer play college kids, but was too young to play a young father.” While there he wrote screenplays and paid the bills reading and reviewing scripts.
After five years, he returned home to study law at the University of Miami. While studying, he hooked up with the Mental Floss improv troupe, which he credited as great training because “you learned by being able to fail.” He joined the Miami-Dade County state attorney’s office where he met fellow lawyer Stephanie.
Inspired by the dramas of Mark Medoff, Caryl Churchill and Lanford Wilson, he began writing plays, producing two that he vows never to take out of the drawer.
“I felt for a long time when I saw something contemporary…,” He paused for fear the statement would sound immodest. “… I thought I can write better than that.” He said sheepishly that a playwright needs confidence. “To think that people would want to read it, actors would want to memorize it and people would pay to see it, takes an immense amount of ego.”
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
Leon thinks the play has legs because of the timeless universal themes of family and identity. “People will still be doing this play 50 years from now.”
Whatever happens to it, Demos-Brown has no plans to quit his day job, which is especially busy right now and causing a lot of stress as he juggles both his callings.
“My wife correctly says that if were to quit law completely I would probably lose my mind. I just can’t envision making a solid enough living as a playwright that I could put my kids through school and pay the mortgage yet. Maybe there will be that point in a few years, but I’m not there yet.”
But he has a commission for a third play in an unexpected American trilogy from the George Street Playhouse, which produced Fear Up Harsh under the title American Hero.
While he is tinkering some other ideas, he is staying loose for the moment to see what happens with American Son.
In the meantime, he is cautiously savoring this moment.
“I’ve always known what the mystique of Broadway was about because I’ve loved theater my whole life. You know when I have walked through the theater district and seen the names of plays up on marquees, I’ve always gotten that kind of giddy goosebump feeling looking at other people’s plays”
“I just never realized how much other people, even if you’re not a theater fan, understand what that means….You know, my orthopedic surgeon father probably has seen three plays in his life and I wrote ‘em all. He gets what this means.”
“I went, for example, to an appointment with a doctor the other day and I had to fill out a form and they asked, ‘What is your job’ and I put down ‘playwright’ and it was the first time I was perfectly comfortable saying that (because) when somebody asks, ‘Oh, have you done anything I’ve heard of,” I can say, ‘Well, I have a play on Broadway actually.’ ”