Decades after segregation ended, a modern-day Miami police department preserves one of the most potent symbols of that era’s racism. In the new play, American Son, the characters discuss the two separate water fountains, near the waiting area, which remain constant reminders of discrimination, built into the walls of this institution. This play elicits serious conversation on institutional racism, colorism, and criminal injustice in America. Tony award-winning director, Kenny Leon, takes a verbose play with racially-tense dialogue and executes a thought-provoking production.
Though Christopher Demos-Brown’s drama barely scratches the surface of America’s race problem, he knows there is far more to discuss. While mounting numbers of white people call 911 to report black people for simply “living while black” and blacks are much more likely to be shot by police than their white peers, this play asks us to confront this disparate reality particularly where the police force is involved.
Talking about race, though, is difficult for many white Americans. American Son intentionally holds its unsuspecting largely white Broadway audience captive for 85 minutes without pause to reflect on race while an interracial couple await the news of their missing “black” son in a police station.
Kendra Ellis Connor (Kerry Washington) is sitting alone in that Miami police station waiting room. Though it is summertime, and during the midnight shift, unbelievably no one is in the room with her. The area is incredibly clean, tidy, and sterile like no other police house we’ve seen; there are no desk sergeants, wanted posters, police signs, and noisy complainants. However, there are donuts. Pale green tiles frame large picture windows as a storm brews outside. The set, designed by Tony award-winner, Derek McLane, symbolizes hiding or minimizing the chaos of the outside with an orderly appearance on the inside. Kendra sits juxtaposed in a neat room while slowly losing her composure.
Her first encounter with another human comes after several panicked cell phone voice messages. Kendra, a black mother, summoned to the station encounters Police Officer Larkin (Jeremy Jordan). Larkin, a white rookie cop, represents well the cold, impersonal, and apparently unfeeling bureaucracy that overlooks a woman’s anguish preferring policy, procedures, and protocol. We learn that police reports connect Kendra’s son, Jamal, to some sort of incident. Officer Larkin says he cannot offer any updates until his department head, Lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee) begins the next shift.
Kendra, a psychology professor, sometimes comes across cynical, aggressive, ill-tempered and may distance herself from prospective sympathizers. Not only has she waited alone with no update on her missing son, but exposes an emotional defense mechanism she has developed in response to generational racism and prejudice. “This can’t be that hard, either he’s in the system or he isn’t,” she says with raised voice. Her masked pain doesn’t allow the audience to completely embrace her because she shows no vulnerability.
When Kendra’s husband, Scott (Steven Pasquale), who happens to be white, finally arrives at the station, Officer Larkin freely shares information about Jamal he hadn’t offered the young man’s mother. Scott is seen as accommodating, friendly, and professionally-dressed. In other words, he is not “ghetto,” therefore worthy of respect. The playwright explores these negative racial stereotypes and their effect on obtaining important information; information that could result in life or death.
But who is Jamal? Jamal was given an Arabic masculine name, meaning “beauty,” over the disapproval of his father. The question of Jamal’s color is left to the audience’s interpretation. Before Scott shows up, Kendra is asked for a description of her son and the police officer is taken aback when he realizes Jamal is biracial. Studies show us though, light-skinned black Americans, even those with two black parents, are considered to be more accepted than those of a dark hue. Was Jamal racially profiled because he appears black?
Everyone will experience American Son differently. The playwright starts a serious conversation that the audience will likely continue after leaving the theater. I observed once the performance was over, attendees were talking. It’s not a play that rests easy with anyone. But how people reacted was different. As a black woman, I knew what the outcome of the play would be because of past history and personal experiences. The white woman behind me seemed quite startled and sad.
Police overuse of excessive force and racial inequalities in America have no quick fixes nor will these problems be solved by this play. But what Demos-Brown does is get the audience conversing on topics that are painful but necessary. People’s lives depend on it.