This review was originally published to Broadway World on July 17, 2017
Kendra Ellis-Connor is living every mother's worst nightmare. Her son is missing. It's now four o'clock in the morning and she's at the police station trying to get answers. The officer working the nightshift is useless, her ex-husband isn't picking up his phone and the speculations are beginning to consume her. Her son's disappearance and the station's lack of information raise questions. Kendra has a hunch why. Both she and her son are black. American Son, a new play by Christopher Demos-Brown which ran at the Barrington Stage Company from June 17 through July 9, 2016 is a turbulent parable of America's systemic racism.
Fluorescent lights blink up on the Miami-Dade County police station, expertly designed by Brian Prather (set) & Scott Pinkney (Lights), as we see a black mother terrified about her son Jamal's whereabouts. Kendra's fighting a battle on two fronts: internally, she's trying to keep herself from hypothesizing her son's fate; externally, she's sparring with Officer Paul Larkin.
Directed by Artistic Director Julianne Boyd, American Son is searing in its taut 80 minutes. Boyd keeps the action tightly focused on the verbal exchange and doesn't play around much with levels in staging, stakes, or rhythm. American Son erupts out of the gate and remains explosive until its conclusion. Starting at a 10 doesn't leave the dramatic action much room to climb. This choice took a toll on the actors voices which sounded ragged by the time I caught the closing performance. Ironically, the rough stage voices and battered bodies contributed a natural element which worked nicely. The exhausting drama is not a privilege reserved for its characters. It radiated off the stage and into everyone in the audience. Heads were hanging low, tears filled eyes, and I even heard one man say "and yet the GOP is still controlled by the NRA."
Tamara Tunie as Kendra captured the raw terror of a black mother living in 2016. Ms. Tunie is a commanding actress with an onstage presence making it impossible to look away especially as her situation becomes more and more dire. Michael Hayden as Scott Connor, seemed more focused on playing an FBI agent than building chemistry with Tunie or exhibiting concern for his son's whereabouts. This explains why they aren't together anymore. Hayden, at times, appeared uncomfortable onstage and even broke the naturalism of the piece by turning out and delivering directly to the audience.
Demos-Brown's structure of a one-act real-time drama works well in his favor. The narrative flows organically, wasting no time making its point known, resulting in a heated debate. Lacking were varying voices of opinion and colorful dialogue. Demos-Brown never lands on a voice for Scott Connor making the character uneven and questionably racist. Does he really have a problem with naming his son Jamal after 18 years? Officer Paul Larkin was a mostly stock character with inappropriate laughs for the play's tone. Lacking throughout were varying voices of opinion and colorful dialogue.
The lasting effect of the anger emerging from American Son is equal to the anger fueling protesters to take to the street and peacefully demand action. I doubt anyone can sit through American Son and not become enraged with the hyperbole of Lt. John Stokes' belief that black men who want to live should simply "shut their mouth and behave," or by Scott's selfish anger when Jamal joins the debate on systemic change. Setting the play in a police station and having a civilian of color go up against three law enforcers quietly addresses the country's issue with institutional racism. Not once will you hear an officer in this play use the words "de escalation training" or "militarized police."
The sting of American Son was no doubt softer before two black civilians and five police officers were gunned down in our streets. Juxtaposed against current events, the play's nightmare quality is beginning to look more like reality- a challenge when the source material continues to be redefined with new horror and pain.