by Carol Rocamora
It’s almost too painful to watch. I’m referring to the look on Kerry Washington’s face, throughout the 90 agonizing minutes of American Son.
Kerry Washington is living through a mother’s worst nightmare. She plays Kendra Connor, who finds herself at a Miami police station one June morning at 4 a.m., waiting for news of her missing son Jamal. It’s storming outside the glass windows on Derek McLane’s spare set, but that’s nothing compared to the tempest that’s going on in that tension-filled room.
For Kendra, you see, is black, and the Officer Larkin she’s confronting (Jeremy Jordan) is white. He won’t give her any details about her son’s whereabouts – not until her white husband Scott (Steven Pasquale) arrives, and suddenly the information flows freely.
American Son deals with one of the most painful topics in this country today – the interaction between the police and young African-American men. In Christopher Demos-Brown’s taut drama, he covers all aspects of this explosive dynamic, adding multiple complexities. Things are not what they seem. For starters, the parents are an affluent, bi-racial couple. Scott is an FBI agent, and Kendra is a Ph.D. professor of psychology. Secondly, their son Jamal is not a stereotype – he’s bi-racial, educated at an almost-all-white private school, and on his way to West Point. Third, the officer in charge of the case, Lieutenant Stokes (Eugene Lee) is black.
The tragedy at the center is Jamal himself (who never appears in the play). In an explosive confrontation between Kendra and Scott, she reveals that – since Scott left the family four months ago – the heartbroken Jamal has forsaken his white schoolmates and his dream of West Point, and is hanging out with black youths, some of whom have police records. Moreover, Jamal has put a bumper sticker on the Lexus his father gave him, saying “Shoot cops” – a direct rebuke of his father.
“I’ve been afraid for him since he was born,” Kendra cries at one point, the mother of a black son in white America. “For us, there is no American Dream,” replies the other black character, Lieutenant Stokes. And now her worse fears have come true. It is revealed that Jamal has been apprehended a few hours ago with his friends by the police. (No spoiler alert – the final outcome is yours to discover.) Kenny Leon directs the excellent ensemble, wherein each character gets caught up in the maelstrom of racial conflict, stereotyping, and prejudice.
In the end, American Son transcends color, expressing the anguish all mothers endure for their sons in danger. It’s primal, it’s devastating, and when we witness it on stage, it cuts right to the core. We’ve seen it on the face of Volumnia in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Kate Keller in Miller’s All My Sons, Mary Tyrone in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and so many others. We’ll never forget them, their suffering, their desperation, their clinging to hope against hope. Nor will we forget Kerry Washington and her heartbreaking performance.
Photo: Peter Cunningham
American Son by Christoper Demos-Brown, directed by Kenny Leon, now playing on Broadway at the Booth Theatre
Run Time: One Hour, 30 Minutes (no intermission) www.AmericanSonPlay.com