By Bill Hirschman
The intensifying Black Lives Matter conversation will be fueled on Broadway this fall in the unique vision of Christopher Demos-Brown, one of South Florida’s most esteemed theater professionals, in the form of his racially-explosive drama, American Son.
Demos-Brown will become one of the region’s first playwrights to have a work performed on Broadway.
Although famed producer Jeffrey Richards announced the move in January, key details were revealed today including dates, the reserved stage and the top-lined cast. The production will star award-winning television, film and Broadway A-listers Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale, and will be directed by the acclaimed Kenny Leon. Previews begin October 6 and opening night is slated for November 4 at the Booth Theatre.
Not only is this the Miami-based playwright’s first work to be produced on Broadway, it is one of the very few by any Florida playwright ever to be produced on Broadway other than Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics in 2003. Michael McKeever’s Daniel’s Husband was produced off-Broadway in 2017.
American Son—one of the few Demos-Brown plays not yet produced in South Florida—is a scorching drama examining America’s racial divide. The action is sparked when 18-year-old Jamal is pulled over in a traffic stop in Florida and subsequently arrested. His mother and her estranged husband—an interracial couple—rush to the police station in the middle of the night to deal with their worst fears.
American Son had its world premiere at Barrington Stage in Massachusetts in 2016 after a staged reading with Karen Stephens and Clive Cholerton at the National New Play Network conference held at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. It received a second production during 2017 at George Street Playhouse in New Jersey , which had produced his break out play, the Carbonell-winning Fear Up Harsh
“The play sprang out of conversations I was having and seeing on social media about police shootings,” Demos-Brown wrote in an email exchange Thursday. “The upside of social media is that they allow people to drop their pretenses and say what they think. The downside is people tend to dig in on positions. Inspired by what I was seeing, I started jotting down imaginary conversations between two people who see the world through different racial lenses. Eventually those people evolved into the play’s main characters.”
Demos-Brown, a civil trial lawyer in his other life, wrote Thursday about how the work evolved locally. “I started writing the play as part of the wonderful program run by the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs that allows local playwrights to develop plays under the tutelage of more experienced writers. I had sketched out a few scenes and, Sheri Wilner [the playwright/instructor of the program that year] encouraged me to finish it.
“After I completed a very rough first draft, I did a reading with some actors—literally around my kitchen table. There were several developmental readings after that, the most important being one Lou Tyrrell directed at the FAU Theatre Lab [which we also presented the following day at the National New Play Network’s New Play Showcase].”
The next step: “A very dear friend named Roz Stuzin is on the board of Barrington Stage and sent the script to that theatre’s artistic director, Julie Boyd. Julie ended up doing the world premiere. Then I got lucky that one of the current producers came to see that production. I got even luckier that those producers have a profound commitment to meaningful plays and the guts to introduce new playwrights on Broadway.”
Richards became a booster. Then Washington was approached. Her enthusiasm was one key to the project getting done and a Broadway house being secured.
Washington said. “After reading the script, I was immediately enthralled by the world of the play and the gripping circumstances that these characters are facing. I am excited to step into the ring with Kenny and Steve to tell this story on Broadway…. Christopher Demos-Brown has written a play that dives deep into the big questions of who we are as a nation, by exploring the intimate relationships within a family caught at the crossroads of love, loss, identity and community.”
Demos-Brown has been involved with several Florida theater companies including as one of the co-founders of Zoetic Stage in Miami in 2010 where his most recent play Wrongful Deaths and Other Circus Acts premiered in January.
But this project has been different. “The journey from regional theater to Broadway has been nothing but lessons and surprises! In regional theatre, getting a play done is hard, but I think very good plays usually get produced. For a non-musical to get done on Broadway, though… Man. So many pieces have to fall into place. There’s a saying in aviation that for a plane to crash, everything has to go wrong; for a helicopter to fly everything has to go right. Plays fly to Broadway in old, rusty helicopters.”
Last winter, Demos-Brown was cautious about the show’s prospects. “You can’t set out to have a play on Broadway [today] unless you write a musical. I feel like getting a straight play on Broadway is like threading a needle with yarn. There are so many obstacles and there are so many pieces that have to fall into place that are out of your control,” he said.
He was asked what a Broadway berth says about him. He responded, “It says I wrote a good play. I wrote a timely play that happens to deal with issues that are relevant. But a lot of people have written good plays that have not gone to Broadway. There’s a little bit of luck involved. You can make your own luck to a degree. But in other ways I’m not sure how much this says about my career.”
The work has not stayed static. “Getting two full productions with two very different casts and directors gave me a lot of insight into the play, so I’ve made quite a few significant changes for the Broadway production,” Demos-Brown said.
And like Anna in the Tropics, this will shine a national spotlight on the play’s artistic birthplace and the unique facets that forged it.
“I mean almost all of my professional theatre life has been in South Florida. The play takes place in Miami. It’s inspired by my life experience here. Virtually every person involved in South Florida theatre has helped me somehow, some way, directly or indirectly on the path to Broadway. Actors, directors, audiences, donors, critics, the Miami-Dade County taxpayers [through the Department of Cultural Affairs]. So in my mind, the whole village had a hand in American Son going to Broadway.”
Echoing a familiar refrain, he added, “Unfortunately, it’s a village that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves as a theatre incubator. People think of the arts in Miami, they think: Art Basel, Miami City Ballet, art deco architecture. So I’m hopeful another play with roots in Miami will make people in New York and other regions start to see us as the great theater region we truly are. “
Indeed, much of his work reflects the home he adopted when he moved here at nine years old in 1974. Most of his full-length plays have been Florida-centric and several reflect his “day job.” They have won a shelf of awards and nominations including a 2014 Steinberg Award Citation from the American Theatre Critics’ Association for Fear Up Harsh, the 2016 Laurents/Hatcher Award for American Son, multiple Silver Palm awards and the Best New Play Carbonell Award for When the Sun Shone Brighter and for Fear Up Harsh.
But this announcement marks a milestone many months in the making. Notable is the involvement of A-list talent. Washington is best known for her work as a Golden Globe, Emmy and SAG nominee for her work on Scandal and she won praise appearing David Mamet’s Race on Broadway. Drama Desk nominee Pasquale is known for Rescue Me, The People Vs. OJ Simpson, The Bridges Of Madison County musical and the recent Junk. Tony-winner Leon has won plaudits for his helming revivals of A Raisin in the Sun and Children of a Lesser God. Richards has been involved in a score of shows from Spring Awakening to August: Osage County.