Report From New York: American Son Is Powerful Meld of Racial Strife And Parenting

We’re back from our trip to New York to scout out productions you might want to see (or not), shows that might tour South Florida and scripts that might be worth reviving in our regional theaters.  We will post reviews over the next week or so between local productions. The reviews include American Son, Daniel’s Husband, and The Nap. Just search for “Report From New York.”

By Bill Hirschman

The pre-opening publicity of Christopher Demos-Brown’s racially-charged play on Broadway, American Son, has focused on its inescapable resonance with the tumultuous zeitgeist – a virtue championed in interviews by its star and co-producer, television’s Kerry Washington.

But what Demos-Brown wrought on the page is a fusion of the intense racial issues with the universal terror of parents struggling to prepare a teenager to graduate into an antagonistic and unforgiving world. With those two elements intertwined and acidly eating into other, American Son produces a far more complicated tale than simply an emotion-suffused polemic about overt and subtle manifestations of racism in the 21st Century.

The result is a hellish nightmare spread across 85 minutes in real time as a black mother and estranged white father are called to a Miami police station in the middle of a rain-soaked night, in response to vague references to an “incident” involving their 18-year-old biracial son.

As more and more details emerge involving his interaction with police on a traffic stop, the audience watches the inexorable sucking of a maelstrom’s whirlpool into tragedy.

Demos-Brown — the author of acclaimed dramas like Fear Up Harsh and  co-founder of Zoetic Stage — has produced a gripping, intense depiction of persisting racism. Sometimes the poison is subterranean, sometime a slap in the face. Often it is well-intentioned people acting on erroneous presumptions and stereotypes.

Indeed, this harrowing journey directed by Kenny Leon apportions out compassion and criticism for every character. At the same time, it punctures the audience’s own shallow shorthand assumptions of whom to root for and who deserves blame.

This new edition of American Son, which premiered at Barrington Stage in 2016, marks Demos-Brown’s first Broadway bow and only the second time a South Florida writer’s work has appeared there since Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics in 2003.

Several people, not the least Washington and Leon, have lauded Demos-Brown’s s skill at investigating these issues from each party’s wildly different perspective and in their authentic voices. The topics range from fractious police relations to African-Americans assimilating into the white image of The American Dream.

Some observers have carped that the play seems densely crammed with every conceivable permutation of the themes. But comprehensiveness, depth and complexity are virtues not drawbacks. Demos-Brown is not trying to provide fresh answers so much as ask questions by portraying in stark terms those paradigms that we perceive but shy from.

The story begins with Kendra, a psychology professor in Coral Gables, inside the institutional substation at 4 a.m. on her cellphone desperately trying to contact her son Jamal as thunder, lightning and rain assault a black void outside large windows.

The son went out earlier in the evening but has not come home. Kendra has been called to the station with some nebulous inquiry about his new car being found. Exceptionally intelligent and well aware of the problems of minorities dealing with police, she is barely holding together after waiting an hour for word, but she is invoking immense self-control to keep from immolating in fear and fury. She repeatedly cross-examines naïve young officer Larkin (Jeremy Jordan) who insists he can’t tell her more and that she must wait for public affairs Lieutenant Stokes. She begs, rages, vents, does virtually everything but cries in front of him, knowing she is at his mercy, and that he knows it.

Larkin has been around just long enough to think he has seen a lot, especially distraught parents whom he makes assumptions about. He maddeningly sticks to unimaginative protocol because it absolves him from dealing with this clearly no-win situation. Finally, Kendra’s agitation erupts in what will be a growing racial animosity between the two.

Eventually, her estranged husband Scott (Steve Pasquale) arrives. Larkin sees a badge on his belt and assumes he is Stokes. He volunteers that the son was among three black males driving in a Lexus who were stopped during some incident. Scott reveals he is an FBI agent and tries to use their shared law enforcement bond to get more information but to only marginal avail. Scott is a stern straight arrow who loves his son without reservation but is a rock-ribbed conservative proud that his son will likely go to West Point.

As they await more information trickling in, the parents renew a wide range of disagreements and wounds. Among other issues, they have battled for years about how to raise an exceptionally bright and promising teenager facing the challenge of being a biracial young man living and hopefully thriving in a world of prejudice and violence.

The ensuing debates are complex, detailed and depict racial divides infecting every aspect of their lives including the fissures in their marriage. But much of it circles on their mutual decision to give Jamal every chance to succeed by nurturing his ability to merge with the mainstream white society. But that has robbed him of half his cultural birthright and apparently Jamal has been rebelling recently  by putting his hair in corn rows, wearing baggy jeans , and acting out in ways that will precipitate what happens.

Scott is furious that Jamal seems to be taking what he sees as self-destructive chances certain to risk it all. Kendra has supported Scott’s efforts, but has come to understand Jamal’s second thoughts.

KENDRA: You just don’t get it. His world is not your world, Scott.
SCOTT: Oh yes it is. It most certainly is. Look — I completely appreciate how you had to grow up. OK? The hard streets of Liberty City. Interstate cutting through. Red-lining. All of that. I admire it. I always have. It’s one of the many reasons I…. His world is not that world. But his world is definitely my world. You and I both worked hard to make it my world. We spent almost a quarter of a million dollars putting that kid through the best private schools in the city. He grew up in Coral Gables, for Chrissake. He’s had every possible advantage. I simply will not accept him regressing into…”

The couple second- and third-guess each other’s parenting as the cause for whatever has happened to Jamal tonight, all of it with decisions about race underpinning everything.

Eventually, Stokes (Eugene Lee) arrives, gets crosswise with Scott who becomes violent at the increasingly ominous stonewalling. Kendra and the audience might expect Stokes to be sympathetic given that he is African-American, but he is a no-nonsense veteran of the thin blue line who has experienced both racism in the community and the evil in the community.

Suddenly, information emerges that ratchets up the tension, the fear and the antagonism between the parents. Finally, matters devolve into a denouement that in retrospect was inevitable, but is shattering.

In the opening minutes, race is never mentioned or even alluded to. But at some point, Larkin paternalistically says he “completely understands” Kendra’s concerns because he has children. That releases her first aggressive salvo.

KENDRA: How old are they?
OFFICER LARKIN: Well… they’re…
KENDRA: Any of ‘em Black?

At that moment, with the lines suddenly drawn, with the audience issuing an audible intake of breath, the divide emerges that will grow until it dominates the play.

The officer, having “expected” this tack from a minority, sets his jaw.

OFFICER LARKIN: Wow… We’re really gonna go there?
KENDRA: Oh, we been there for a while.”

While the playwright’s dialogue is heightened naturalism, Demos-Brown can slip imperceptibly into almost poetic phrases. That culminates in Washington’s long theatrical aria about being unable to sleep for some time. She describes sneaking into his bedroom as Jamal’s slept.

“Sometimes I go in and touch the muscle on his neck or shoulder. Stand there and bullshit myself: Don’t worry Kendra – he’s big and powerful. This world
can’t hurt him.’ Till that nagging feeling comes back and I dwell on how fragile he is. Whatever nightmare it is just woke me up: Someone texting in an SUV… an errant punch in a bar fight… a ruptured appendix in some third world country. Most mothers can sit there in the dark and get rational… go back to sleep. But sometimes… in my nightmares… I see nooses and crosses and white men with Brylcream crew-cuts.”

There are references that will mean nothing to New York audiences, but will deepen any Florida production: the couple lived in Coral Gables, she resented driving to work down a street named South Dixie Highway, and it mentions the fatal beating by police of Arthur McDuffie –still blazingly painful for anyone who has lived in Florida since the 1980 tragedy.

Leon, who was involved in several August Wilson plays, has carefully calibrated the pacing and the performances. Often the play races like a flash flood, making the most of Demos-Brown’s precise script directions that require emotionally-driven people to talk over each other, not always listening. Other times after someone has said something that crosses a line, he has characters face each other in a profound silent standoff in which the rain can be heard outside.

Washington’s performance is astounding, especially for someone accustomed to short television scenes and not working in theater for many years. For 98 percent of the 85 minutes, she is on stage exuding an abyss of unending pain, frustration, anger and a rising storm surge of fear. There is no trace of her Scandal crisis manager Olivia Pope other than their shared intelligence. By definition, the part requires a daunting level of intensity and energy, and she delivers. The demands on her voice – constricted, raging — makes one wonder how she is going to sustain eight performances a week for the limited run.

Pasquale is her equal with the rigid, strong-willed Scott who is unshakably assured of the rightness of his vision for Jamal. The actor with the strong jaw and deep seated eyes has starred in Broadway musicals like The Bridges of Madison County, numerous stage dramas and is best known for television’s Rescue Me.  While Scott unabashedly sees Jamal’s ethnicity as a challenge to his future, Pasquale does not make Scott seem an overt racist so much as a concerned parent who long ago accepted racism as the way of the world.

Jordan, who starred in Newsies, nails the young officer who would never think of himself as racist. For him, like many law enforcement officers, the world is not black and white, but blue and everyone else. Yet when he mistakes Scott for Stokes, he says, in Kendra’s earshot, “I was just trying to keep the natives at bay until the cavalry arrived, you know? … I mean, wait’ll you see this lady. Bitch is totally outta control. I mean… I got kids too, but she went from zero to ghetto in like… nothing flat, you know?”

Lee is completely credible as a veteran police officer who knows both sides of the racial issue.

If only for its sadly current topicality, American Son is almost certain to have a life beyond this Broadway outing for several seasons hence. But it’s Demos-Brown’s skill and vision that have his new colleagues predicting that the work will still be produced decades from now.

American Son is playing in an opened-ended run (but expected to last about three months) at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, New York City. Plays throuygh Jan. 27.  More information

To read an interview with Demos-Brown about this production, click here.

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