American Son written by Christopher Demos-Brown is a much needed polemic about what happens to young black males in our nation. If you can help it, don’t be a young, black male. Or if you are, try to stay off the streets between the ages of 13-35. Then, your chances of being shot or incarcerated should be greatly reduced.
To what extent does law enforcement abuse figure in to the above? The percentages speak for themselves. Indeed, this is especially so if one considers that law enforcement regulations and gun laws vary from state to state. However, do not take my word or this production’s thematic pronouncements at face value. Read the crime blotters in cities and suburbs. Sadly, the facts/statistics mount up. And this “in-your-face,” “no-holds-barred” drama powerfully directed by Kenny Leon, presents a typical case so we cannot blink or turn away. Nor can we pretend American Son lays out a mostly fictional reality. If only that were true.
The title generalizes to all our American sons. It does this in the hope that we empathize and understand especially if we are white. Eventually, our nation may become color blind, and there will be no need for the paranoia of white supremacy, Neo-Nazis, and the KKK. Then we will have achieved a miracle of decency and humanity. Surely, then law enforcement will not be partisan to favor white males over women and darker hued men and women of all races in the apprehension of suspects. Perhaps then we will be able to uplift the United States as a country which stands for equal opportunity and justice for everyone. Until then, our presentments express nobility, but our actions express venality and injustice.
Having taught in a multi-cultural district for decades, I’ve known of tensions between law enforcement and various cultures. I can think of one incident when a male student as talented and erudite as Jamal (Kendra’s son in American Son), discussed his experience of police brutality. I saw the remnants of the beating on his handsome face and was sick for the trauma he went through. Thankfully, since then he has prospered in his life and has his own family.
That was over twenty years ago. Overall, the situation has worsened. The rhetoric has escalated, and groups which work to ameliorate the tensions between law enforcement and various cultures have faltered. Often conservative, right-wing, partisan think tanks hold up memes of such groups as fodder for their smear campaigns. They promote antipathy to accelerate their political agendas against gun control and in support of oligarchic nationalism. Also, they seek to divide the populace and incite incidents throwing law enforcement in the middle of the fray.
And what of law enforcement representatives of multi-cultural groups? Indeed, circumstances squeeze them to an “either-or” choice between a rock and a hard place. Few issues have a thesis-antithesis result or solution but remain extremely complex. Thus, the lack of will and incomplete measures to solve problems remain beyond the grasp of well meaning individuals.
All of these issues and many more Demos-Brown presents in this soul-crushing drama that reminds us we live in a nation whose values allegedly proclaim equality for all. But whose recent government practices establish equality for the rich, privileged and predominately white conservatives. Living in the South, even if the city is Miami, the setting of American Son, if a son is not a white, young male, but a black male, then black mothers’ anxiety living in that culture increases. Sadly, their fears for their son when encountering police often is warranted.
African American parents understand that their son’s age and skin-color provide a tragic liability for harm. Darkly hued skin colors arrest faster than white skin colors. Driving while black used to be a twisted joke. You know, when a black male drives through a white neighborhood, he is there to commit a crime. The situation has been exacerbated and the joke has morphed. Now, if one is riding while black, walking while black, smiling while black, hanging out while black, existing while black, one becomes a police suspect.
The question remains. To what extent have members of law enforcement across the nation lost their moral compass about civil rights? And how has the “use of force” taken on sinister tones toward people of color in the aftermath of protests concerning Michael Brown, Travyon Martin, Sandra Bland, and many others?
As Kendra (Kerry Washington is magnificent throughout), Jamal’s mom suggests, if you’re not black you will not understand the fear of a mother for a child who is missing. And she vehemently asserts this truth to Jeremy Jordan’s Officer Paul Larkin who tries to ameliorate her vocal volume and push back as to his whereabouts. Larkin, the white police officer manning the midnight shift in the law enforcement building where Kendra waits for news of Jamal, appears to be a fine person.
Ironically, we and he think she’s abrasive and “over-the-top.” Of course we do not understand as black parents might understand. However, by the end of the play, our perception changes. Only then do we reflect upon Kendra’s intuition. And we realize that indeed, her frantic, frenzied, fearful ranting and insistent “aggression” against the officers and husband, Scott (Steven Pasquale), speak to a deeper purpose.
Kendra, as mother tiger stands up to Larkin’s very fine person presentation. Unrelenting, she finally pushes him to give her snippets of information until Scott (also in law enforcement but not a cop), her estranged husband arrives. Interestingly, with Kendra out of the room for a moment, the characters reveal additional information about themselves and the situation. When the two white men speak together, the dynamic shifts.
Demos-Brown to his credit includes this scene to advance the plot development and relay themes. Easily we note how between the interactions between Larkin, white Scott and black Kendra reveal stereotyping, presumptions and damaging social folkways that perpetuate social ills. Such folkways promote male-female stereotypes and black-white stereotypes. And the fears and close-mindedness generated by them become obstacles to authentic, heart-felt dialogue among all of the stakeholders.
As Scott, Kendra’s soon to be X husband, Steven Pasquale’s powerful performance remains level with Washington’s. Tragically, he partially “gets” how his son’s not coming home implies danger. However, as a white male, we note he wears the cloak of privilege. Sadly, as hard as he has tried to place the cloak upon Jamal’s shoulders, his son’s skin color isn’t light enough.
Nevertheless, when Scott repeatedly asserts Jamal will be fine, we and Kendra believe him. Indeed, how comforted we are as he makes assurances. But Kendra’s son and Scott’s son though the same, hail from different backgrounds. On the streets, Jamal’s DNA is Kendra’s. On the sports field, in school, and at the prestigious college he will be attending, Jamal’s privileged DNA belongs to Scott’s background. Kendra calls Scott on such issues. Scott remains in a cloud about it not quite accepting the import of her message. How can he? His background and very DNA establish his cultural supremacy regardless of his heart. Blessed and damned by his identity, he loves Jamal and this love becomes its own liability. The play’s conclusion clarifies the complex truth of being a child of this bi-racial couple.
With precision Demos-Brown reveals the mammoth difficulties in color-blind marriages. This becomes a very vital theme of this amazing and thoughtful play. For however “color-blind,” loving and empathetic he remains, Scott thinks and carries the white male perspective which he has projected on his son’s lifestyle and accomplishments. Of course, Kendra speaks from a black female perspective with great wisdom. However this fact remains. They must work overtime to conjoin their views, attitudes and the chasms of identity or the contentions and blind spots will continue as they raise Jamal.
This paramount theme strikes with fury throughout the production especially after Scott appears and he and Kendra argue about their perspectives and relationship to their son. Scott blames her not Jamal as the reason he walks out on the family. Bravely, Kendra shines her authentic and “no-nonsense,” self. Thus, when she indicts him and the others for their various individual callousness, her retorts sting. And when she indicts Lieutenant John Stokes (the excellent Eugene Lee), as an “Uncle Tom” who should know better, but only soft-pedals a cover-up, we cringe. Yet we do recognize that circumstances have forced the Lieutenant to wear that mantle, regardless of his inner feelings.
Though she does apologize to obtain the Lieutenant’s help with Jamal, her words have struck home. To what extent do blacks rise to the level of gatekeepers, merely put there to keep “their own folks in line?” Meanwhile, do they ever achieve the top positions and call the shots? Or must they remain lackeys to cover up the mess their colleagues may create? To what extent do they compromise themselves and add to the racial stereotyping? This is another theme that Demos-Brown includes in this multi-messaged, profoundly insightful play about race, gender, mores surrounding each, social stereotypes, the inadequacy of law enforcement training and much more.
All the while, Jamal never shows up or answers his phone heightening the tension for the parents. When Scott has a physical altercation with Lieutenant Stokes, we wonder the extent to which prejudice has pushed him over the edge. And likewise for Lieutenant Stokes to arrest Scott, how far does his own prejudice take him? The white-black conflict between Stokes and Scott fascinates. So does the conflict between Kendra and Scott as they argue about how they raised Jamal. Then comes the information that pushes everyone toward a new development and possible resolution.
Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Eugene Lee, and Jeremy Jordan hit the bulls-eye with their portrayals. Each creates intensity. This combines to transfer the tension up the line to explode at the conclusion. Leon’s taut and clear-eyed direction channels their energy in a tumultuous build. All play for the stakes which crescendo up and into a mountain of emotions with which we simultaneously engage in, recoil, sorrow over.
Inevitably, I intuited what happened to Jamal before the conclusion because of my own background and extensive reading. Demos-Brown and the cast work assiduously to get us to do the impossible: identify with Kendra’s plight as a black mother in an environment of predators and passive-aggressives. Empathizing with her, one knows what can and might happen. Thus, for me, the ending came less as a shock. However, emotion doesn’t figure in so much as rationality at the play’s conclusion. When is enough enough? The nightmare of racism, genderism, oppression, injustice, inequity of power must decrease adhering to constitutional law not increase. The play is an incredible cry from the heart of love, and it reverberates with a terrible, engrossing, and tragic echo of our time.
American Son must been seen for the stellar, relentless, crackling performances, the tension, the adroit direction, the symbolism of the set (including the rain storm), and the lucid and well constructed play by Demos Brown.
American Son features scenic design by Derek McLane, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski, and sound design by Peter Fitzgerald.
It runs with no intermission at the Booth Theatre (222 West 45th street) until 27th of January. For tickets go to the website.