New York City Theater
With its ironic title and dystopian outlook, Christopher Demos-Brown’s “American Son” takes place in neither a regressive past nor a progressive future but “on a day this coming June.” This compelling but inefficient new play reinforces the notion that, although the U.S. has made civil rights advances, its inner core, its original sin of slavery and prejudice, may never go away. It is our mark of Cain.
Scenic designer Derek McLane’s Miami police station is vast, dwarfing Kendra, the isolated woman who, at 4:00 A. M., waits and waits for news of Jamal, her missing 18-year-old son. Outside, beating against the windows like avengers furious to get in, rain cascades and thunder growls. (Lighting by Peter Kaczorowski, sound by Peter Fitzgerald.)
Kendra, an African-American university professor, is subject to dutiful Officer Larkin’s casually racist questions: Does the young man have any distinguishing marks: “scars, tattoos, gold teeth – that kinda stuff?” A drink of water? Down the hall are two fountains side by side because the building used to be segregated. Even in a South that would like to think it has left prejudice behind, remnants are inescapable, hidden and unacknowledged.
When Scott, Kendra’s ex-husband arrives, they argue about their son’s habits. Scott, an F.B.I. agent, believes Jamal invites trouble by looking like a “gangsta,” with his “baggy pants, the cornrows. That stupid, loping, surly walk he’s suddenly developed.” A bumper sticker that says “Shoot Cops” doesn’t help. To Kendra, Jamal is “just a teenage boy . . . trying to figure out who he is.”
Could arguing over their son have been the reason the couple divorced? We learn so little about their past. It’s a plot barely, tantalizingly, undeveloped.
Although the characters are attitudes, the actors play them as if they were flesh and blood. As Kendra, a de-glamorized Kerry Washington doesn’t let her smarts over-ride her maternal concerns. Every expression seethes with an accumulation of irritability and under-stated defiance. There’s a tragic inevitability about the fate to which she’s been assigned.
Steven Pasquale skirts Scott’s self-righteousness. Torn between cool exterior and inner turmoil, he puts a professional cap over his feelings until finally overwhelmed by them.
Jeremy Jordan’s Officer Larkin, trying to overcome his inherent stereotyping, is polite and helpful. His remarks are habitual, whereas a fourth character, the African-American Lt. Stokes, is without resentment. Eugene Lee plays him as a no-nonsense, seen-it-all public pro with a headstrong devotion to his badge.
Under Kenny Leon’s driving, though at times awkward direction, that dichotomy between then and now, tradition and reform, underpins the evening. Up against two unyielding adversaries, authority and history, loss is unavoidable.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 16, 2018