Wednesday, November 7, 2018

American Son


Lest we take unwarranted comfort in the belief that events like the one underlying this harrowing drama are safely in the past, playwright Christopher Demos-Brown has specified the time of this play as “shortly after 4:00 AM on a day this coming June.” In the waiting room of a Miami police station on a stormy night, Kendra (Kerry Washington; Race, “Scandal”), an African-American psychology professor, is frantic with worry over the whereabouts of her 18-year-old son Jamal, whose car has been involved in an unspecified police incident. She is not getting any answers from passive-aggressive Officer Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan; Newsies) whose inexperience leads him to cling to protocol by telling her that she must await the arrival of Lt. John Spokes (Eugene Lee; A Soldier’s Play), the public affairs officer, for further details. They engage in an unproductive shouting match which has a few ironically humorous moments. When her estranged husband Scott (Stephen Pasquale; Junk, The Bridges of Madison County), a white FBI agent, arrives, sporting a badge on his belt, Larkin mistakes him for Stokes, unlikely as that may seem, and lets loose a barrage of sexist, racist remarks. Scott is used to getting his way and reacts badly to being obstructed. The arrival of Stokes surprises them all because he is black, a hard-nosed realist who takes no guff from anyone. We learn about Jamal’s sterling qualities, his promising future and his bad reaction to his parents’ split. Although we get a glimpse of what initially attracted Kendra and Scott, their constant disagreement on just about everything makes it hard to imagine their marriage could have lasted 18 years. The action takes place in real time. The tension steadily builds until the sudden shattering climax. It’s a play that grabs your attention and never lets go. What it lacks in artistry and subtlety, it makes up for in audience involvement. The choice of a story about a mixed-race son may add dimension to the plot, but the distinction between mixed-race and black is not significant to the police. The acting is uniformly strong. The set by Derek McLane (The Parisian Woman) looks too modern and plush. It is hard to believe that it is part of a station that still has two water fountains left over from segregation days. The costumes by Dede Ayite (School Girls, Children of a Lesser God) are apt. The direction by Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, Fences) is brisk. Without Kerry Washington’s participation, it probably would not have made it to Broadway. That would have been a shame. Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission.

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