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American Son

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

American Son

Kerry Washington, Stephen Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan in American Son.  Photo by Peter Cunningham

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Christopher Demos-Brown's drama, American Son, unfolds in agonizing real time, drawing together four characters in a South Florida police station waiting room. It is 4 A.M. sometime "this coming June," which is the playwright's way of warning that the American Dream was, and still is in a racial war and we can expect continued bitterness between young African-American males and law enforcement. 

The night is stormy and tension is palpable in the large waiting room throughout the play. Moments of charged silence are shattered by thunderclaps and flashes of lightening while Kendra Ellis-Connor (Kerry Washington) sits alone waiting, occasionally leaping to her feet, pacing and fidgeting. Kendra is a bright African-American single mother, a PhD psychologist and college teacher, well aware of the country's race relations. Worry and agony shadow her face, realizing that her missing 18-year-old son, Jamal, may well be in trouble. Serious trouble. When she called the police earlier, she learned that Jamal's car was "identified in an incident" and she cannot reach him by phone and her estranged husband has not yet arrived at the police station.

Kendra now is desperately trying to find more information from Officer Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan), a young white inexperienced cop who cannot share anything more substantial than, "Listen, I’m really sorry...I’m sure he’s gonna turn up." Not enough. Keyed-up, Kendra's interchange with Larkin swells from glowering worry to full-blown fury. She fears the worst although her son is a responsible, well-brought up young man who has gone to the best schools and now is preparing for a prestigious college. He has never been in trouble. 

After another check on the computer, Larkin returns to tell Kendra that there is, in fact, an investigation but they have to wait until Lieutenant Stokes, public affairs liaison officer, will arrive around eight AM with more information. While Kendra goes for out for a drink of water, her husband Scott (Stephen Pasquale) arrives, white, harried, wearing a suit and badge. His appearance spurs an illuminating interchange with Officer Larkin who mistakes him for Lt. Stokes and blurting out, "Bitch is totally outta control. I mean... I got kids too, but she went from zero to ghetto in like... nothing flat, you know?"

Scott, torn with worry and an obvious love for his estranged family, balances Kendra's impatience with the confidence of a white, educated FBI behavioral analysis officer. He uses this power to demand more information. Right now. Intimidated, Larkin agrees to search again and in an interesting aside, he offers Scott coffee. (He never even offered Kendra water.) 

While Larkin is out of the room, Kendra and Scott's fired up personal interchange reveals their love and commitment to their son, as well as the racial challenges that eventually prove overwhelming to their marriage.

Kenny Leon directs with his usual taut hold on the play's intent, his understanding of the characters and the distinctions between them, particularly the prevalent racial divide. The relationships between a black mother and a white father, between police and community, between experience and inexperience are key here. The cast members are all in firm control of their characters and the specificity of Demos-Brown's book. There are some questionable spots here, as when Jamal puts a bumper sticker on his car saying, "Shoot Cops," a red flag for police to pull over a Lexus driven by a black young man at night with friends inside. It's not right, but not unusual. 

Also while Washington (TV's Scandal) delves into the depth of Kendra's distress revealing her lifelong challenges in a racist society, she seems to be blaming much of her son's recent acting out on his father, escalating after Scott left her. Even the "Shoot Cops" bumper sticker is blamed on Scott. While Washington draws much sympathy in this performance, she is not flawless but never less than human with her evocative declaration, “Everything’s coming apart.” 

The fourth member of this cast is Eugene Lee as seasoned Lt. Stokes who has seen it all. "I have news," he says, and begins to read his report, abruptly steering the evening with its emotional and controversial upheavals to a sudden and inevitable ending. 

Derek McLane's set is dramatized by the large windows allowing us to see the storm outside, with Peter Kaczorowski's lighting and thunderous sounds by Peter Fitzgerald. There is an obvious connection between the raging weather outside the windows and the storm threatening inside.

American Son was awarded the 2016 Laurents/Hatcher Award for Best New Play by an Emerging Playwright.

American Son

Booth Theatre
222 - West 45th Street. NYC
Previews: Oct. 6, 2018. Opening: Nov. 4, 2018. Closing: Jan.27, 2019
Running Time: One hour, 30 min. No intermission.
Cast: Jeremy Jordan (Officer Larkin), Eugene Lee (Lieutenant Stokes), Steven Pasquale (Scott), Kerry Washington (Kendra)
Playwright: Christopher Demos-Brown
Directed: Kenny Leon

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
December 2018

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