By Bill Hirschman
When Christopher Demos-Brown’s racially charged drama American Son finally opens this week at Zoetic Stage, it will be, as director Stuart Meltzer says, “a homecoming.”
The journey has already included a 2016 world premiere at the prestigious Barrington Stage in Massachusetts, a 2017 revision at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey, its bow on Broadway in November 2018 with star Kerry Washington and director Kenny Leon, and last month, a version of the Broadway production on Netflix. Already, there are 16 or so future productions licensed, some necessitating translations in French, Portuguese and Hebrew. Plus a published script.
But “homecoming” is an apt word. The play is set in Miami citing locations such as Dixie Highway, written by a Miami playwright who co-founded Zoetic, which debuted many of his plays. It was developed in informal readings around Demos-Brown’s dining room table, received staged readings at the Deering Estate as part of The Miami-Dade Playwrights Development Program, then Theatre Lab in Boca Raton in 2015 and then became the closing event in the National New Play Network’s conference in Miami a few days later with two actors who will star in the Zoetic production this month.
Further, Meltzer, Demos-Brown and the leads Karen Stephens and Clive Cholerton have known each other and worked together for years. Indeed, Demos-Brown often writes with the voices of local actors in mind, in this case Stephens who triumphed in his prize-winning Fear Up Harsh at Zoetic in 2013.
“It is a homecoming,” Meltzer said “from a Miami playwright who really loves the city, even with all its warts, and who can tell a story of tribes coming together. It’s a Miami-born family play even though it didn’t have its world premiere here.”
American Son is set in the middle of a rainy night inside a Miami police station where an African-American mother is desperately trying to find out why she has been summoned in regards to a doggedly undivulged “incident” involving her missing 18-year-old biracial son. The appearance of her estranged white husband only unleashes domestic clashes fueled in part by their widely divergent attitudes. The script fuses intense racial issues with the universal terror of parents struggling to prepare a teenager to graduate into an antagonistic and unforgiving world. It is created to be far more complicated than simply an emotion-suffused polemic about overt and subtle manifestations of racism in the 21st Century as the story inexorably sinks into a whirlpool of tragedy.
Cholerton warned, “It would be unfortunate if it became this thing where (people expected) this is just preaching to the converted. That is not what it is at all. This play is (also) very much about attacking in some way that white liberal bias that exists.” We in the audience have “to address where you are right now in this journey. I think on the surface level we all know that” police-minority relations are in crisis. “But if that is all you take away, you have not really listened to the play. My hope is that people will really get inside of the real argument of this couple.”
Still, the script will resonate all too deeply for some. Stephens’ cousin Dontrell was paralyzed by a Palm Beach County deputy in a controversial shooting in 2013. “I was affected by it especially since as you know I had a member of my own family had an encounter with the police,” she said.
Birth of a Son
The play’s genesis dates back about five years for Demos-Brown, the author of about a dozen full-length plays and screenplays, which have won the Laurents/ Hatcher Award, a Steinberg Citation from The American Theatre Critics Association, and multiple regional theater honors.
“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. The quote referred to the emotional investment parents make in their children.
The work evolved in those readings, culminating in NNPN’s National Showcase of New Plays starring Stephens, Cholerton, Ethan Henry and Robert Johnson.
Prior to that NNPN reading, he submitted 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. He sent her a first draft of American Son that very much felt to him a work in progress. She jumped on it immediately.
The NNPN conference with artistic directors from around the country generated considerable buzz. “I knew that there was something about play that was striking a chord, but I still am not quite sure why this play more than, say Fear Up Harsh (focusing on troubled veterans from a Mideast conflict and our need for heroes) which I think has the same type of heft to it,” he said. “I’m not trying to be humble or brag or anything, but I could immediately tell (American Son was affecting observers) because a lot of people were telling me that this play was going to have some legs.”
Meltzer remembered his reaction to the staged readings. He atypically had not read the script: “My breath was taken away.… It took all the air out of the room because everybody was holding their breath.”
Cholerton agreed, but “I don’t know that any of us, Chris included, ever would have dreamed within a very short amount of time it would be on Broadway with one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.”
That happened because Barrington attracts a regular influx of New York theater professionals in its audience. A chain of contacts ended up with Jeffrey Richards, a major player, seeking a bold-face name to guarantee a Broadway berth for a new play by a playwright unknown in New York. Luckily, Kerry Washington “had just finished Scandal and was interested in coming back to theater,” Demos-Brown said.
Frequently, people have been surprised that the play – such an accurate reflection of the black experience today and especially that of African-American women – was written by a white middle class man whose day job is as a Miami litigator.
More of a surprise to Demos-Brown since the play opened is what he learned from it, especially because the mother is a psychology professor in Coral Gables. “What surprised me about the play was how many African-American actresses have told me they don’t see roles like this….. What they meant was they’re just not a lot of depictions of African-American women as smart professional people just going about their lives. I guess I find that just stunning in this day and age.”
The entire Broadway experience – especially the months of development – was an education for Demos-Brown whose plays had mostly been done in regional theaters.
“One thing is when you get something that’s a hot project, and you know it, you have to use your leverage because you don’t get it very often. You have leverage about as far as who is going to do it, how it’s going to be done.”
And there were lessons about working in New York – described by their insiders as a company town in which everyone knows everyone.
“What I’ve learned about New York is New York is another region that just happens to be the preeminent one. And by that I mean it operates like other regions with their loyalties and pettiness and lots of people who don’t know what they’re talking about and a lot of people who do. You have to not treat them like they’re up on a pedestal. And they’re extremely resistant to outsiders, like most regions are.”
South Florida differs to a noticeable degree. “We have our little subterranean feuds and grievances. But everybody pretty much gets along and knows each other and we’re all rooting for each other. It doesn’t work that way up there. You know what I saw in this process is that success just pisses some people off and there’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve learned that making everybody happy, it’s not something you can worry about if you’re going to embrace being successful. That’s a shame.”
From Broadway To Back Home
Of course, while theaters regularly mount previously produced works from Hamlet to The Odd Couple, how will Zoetic deal with the recent high-profile outings on Broadway and Netflix?
First, everyone involved has avoided the Netflix edition, although Meltzer saw the New York and Barrington productions. Then, Meltzer said, “when you start working with people with different life experiences and different points of view… you start to get a different chemistry altogether on the artistic product…. Karen’s point of view of the character is going to be that different from Kerry Washington’s point of view of the character.”
Further, Meltzer is an old hand at investing a singular vision on an established work. “One thing that is pleasurable about directing is that the director is an interpretive part,” he said.
Indeed, he and the cast have had frank conversations with Demos-Brown about tweaks. But crucially, “we have a very trusting relationship with each other… and so we have a very open dialogue. And he said to me, ‘You know, I’m excited to see this play with you (directing).’ And that put a little bit of that kind of anxiety at bay for me.”
For instance, Meltzer wants to inject a bit more humor into this tense standoff and he doesn’t want to telegraph the ending as early as other productions.
But there are limits because American Son is a very specific play that would not adjust well to the kind of widely varied approaches possible with Demos-Brown’s surrealistic satire Wrongful Deaths, the playwright said. “I tend to write in kind of a narrow band of human behavior, I guess.”
Still, the cast isn’t unnerved by the past, said Cholerton, a veteran director who laughingly reminds people that he hasn’t acted on stage since Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf 14 years ago. “We all know the playwright and, if anything, there’s a little bit less (anxiety for the cast) because we were some of the original people that were part of the development. So in some way I have a certain sense of ownership.”
Carbonell winner Stephens added about Demos-Brown, “Absolutely, especially since… you know you’re fortunate enough to be some of the people whose voices are in his head, it’s not daunting at all because you do feel a sense of ownership.”
The challenge for them on several levels is doing justice to the piece. “It is difficult because he writes things with a certain level of simplicity and you can get lulled into a false sense of (comfort),” Cholerton said, “But then you continue to dig to find layer after layer after layer. Then it’s how do I give the appearance of simplicity but make sure everything else is there.”
Stephens said that subtext is key: “Other than learning the lines, what’s really at work here is trying to find out what is it that these people want at every given moment in the play and then making choices about how they go about getting that. What their intentions are varies from scene the scene.”
So as Zoetic fine-tunes their production, Demos-Brown keeps working on other projects. He just finished negotiating a contract and is starting the pilot for a mini-series for the FX television network. Ideas for a couple of other plays are in the cogitating period.
But always in the background is the provisionally titled Coral Gables, a single play that serves as both a prequel in its first act and a sequel in its second act to his 2011 play Captiva about a dysfunctional family. Theatre Lab in Boca Raton hosted a staged reading last year that featured a spirited talk back. “I think that has the potential to be my best play,” he said.
American Son from Zoetic Stage runs Jan. 10-26 (preview Jan. 9) in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House, 1300 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $50-55. (305) 949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.