Peter Cunningham
November 04, 2018 at 10:00 PM EST
We gave it a B+

It’s the middle of rainy night when a woman notices her 18-year-old son’s car is not in their driveway. She calls the police to report him missing and learns the car has been stopped in an unspecified incident. When the play opens, the woman, Kendra Ellis-Connor (Kerry Washington), is alone in the waiting room of a Miami police station, coiled in a sterile chair, radiating fear of the worst. Soon she will encounter a young officer (Jeremy Jordan) whose first order of business is to get information about her son, Jamal, who is days away from graduating high school. Does he have a street name? Prior arrests? Gold teeth? Scars? “Does he get those whachacallit… keloids?”

She snaps her responses (no to all of the above, save for a small scar from a childhood surgery), her offense at his casual racism spiking from her baseline of panic. When the cop, a parent himself, tells her he understands how she feels, she challenges him: “Do you have a black son?”

“Wow… We’re really gonna go there?” he asks.

“Oh we been there for a while,” Kendra replies.

We have been here for a while, at a national chasm of tragic misunderstanding. This is the terrain of Christopher Demos-Brown’s new play American Son, which explores the issue, in a thoughtful, tension-filled 90 minutes. It is a play about race, yes, and about the assumptions we make about people. It is also a play about misunderstandings, inadvertent and willful, inconsequential and potentially fatal. It is, on the one hand, bait for an Important National Conversation, but director Kenny Leon (Children of a Lesser God, A Raisin in the Sun) paces this taut production more like a thriller than a polemic, with reversals and revelations along the way of trying to discover: What has happened to Jamal Connor?

Discussions about race and policing in America are tense and uncomfortable in real life, and that is true also at the start of American Son. The conflict on stage begins in broad, sometimes cringe-worthy strokes: Did Officer Larkin really need to point out to Kendra that, although we don’t see them, there are two adjacent water fountains in this old Southern police station? (The authentically depressing set includes rain falling intermittently, illuminated by parking lot lights through the station’s windows. The effect throughout is realistic, except when the thunder and lightning cranks up with the rising action. Scenic design is by Derek McLane, lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski, and sound design by Peter Fitzgerald.)

The same ham-handed ignorance that Larkin displays early on will later offer the audience some gratifying moments of come-uppance: When Jamal’s white father, Scott Connor (Steven Pasquale) arrives, Larkin mistakes him for a the lieutenant assigned to the case and unloads about “keeping the natives at bay.” He is soon faced with the reality that he is describing Kendra in those unfortunate terms to her recently estranged husband.

What begins as a topical play of ideas now pivots into a family drama, and becomes the all the more successful for tightening the circle from black and white in society, to black and white in the same disintegrating marriage. “I don’t know I’ve had a sleep-filled night since that boy was born,” Kendra tells Scott in one desperate exchange. “You just snoring away.”

American Son is most affecting when it is personal, not political: When we understand that Jamal, a prep school kid off to West Point in the fall, has recently cornrowed his hair, started wearing baggy jeans, and adopted what Scott calls, “that stupid, loping, surly walk” not merely as an exploration of identity, but as a way of differentiating himself from his father, who has let the family down by moving out. Was this change in Jamal’s attitude and appearance a factor in the trouble he found himself in that night?

Kendra tries to give context to her son’s actions, all the while containing her anger — different strains of it customized for her ex and for the police — and attempting to tamp down her own fear. Washington is a careful and nuanced actor; those who know her primarily from Scandal will find her confronting a crisis situation in a vastly different way. Here, she’s a mom who didn’t get to sleep that night but still summons enough energy to school those around her.

As her FBI-agent husband, Pasquale embodies a wholly different conflict: He sees their son as biracial, as much Irish-American as he is African-American, even if that distinction disappears in a police report describing Jamal as one of “three black males in a Lexus.” At times, Scott is Kendra’s strength and defender, with his own vulnerability as the father of a missing kid revealing itself in discreet bursts of anger. At other times he falls more comfortably into the fraternity of law enforcement. In a role that could have felt contrived to illustrate rhetorical points, Pasquale makes him a specific person.

The cast is rounded out by Jeremy Jordan, who is agreeable as possible in the role of the cluelessly prejudiced young officer, and the veteran stage actor Eugene Lee as Lt. John Stokes who, like Pasquale’s character, serves to deliver some of the play’s reversals of expectation. Kendra has geared herself for a battle against a white police establishment — Jordan’s Larkin is merely a warm-up for her — so she is briefly thrown by the entrance of Stokes, who is black, and who sternly advises, “You’ll cause yourself a lot less heartache if you stop jumping to conclusions.”

Would that it could be so: Fewer assumptions, less heartache all around. There is, contained within American Son’s lean script, much to discuss after the curtain falls. B+

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