BWW Review: Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale Are Parents of a Missing Black Teen in AMERICAN SON
A frustrated African-American woman, convinced that the young, armed, white police officer she's alone with isn't revealing everything he knows about her missing son, loses control of her temper and yells at him.
"Stop screaming at me!" he yells back, seeming confused and perhaps a bit disoriented.
Suddenly, she realizes the situation she's in and, as if repeating a memorized script, lowers her voice, bows her head and apologizes for implying or suggesting any bad faith on his part.
The situation is, at least for now, diffused.
Perhaps not all of the white audience members at Christopher Demos-Brown's issue-oriented drama, American Son, will realize that they've just witnessed a demonstration of what many African-American children are taught by their parents as the proper attitude to assume whenever approached by the police, believing that it has become their responsibility to convincingly display that they are not a threat.
It's an interesting piece of writing that has opened at the Booth Theatre. The four characters are less fully-fleshed out humans than they are representations of types created to express four sides of what is arguably the most controversial issue facing America today; the combination of social media and cell phones with video recorders increasing the country's visibility of black men being killed by police officers.
It's shortly after 4AM and psychology professor Kendra (Kerry Washington) sits alone in the waiting room of a Miami police station. Large picture windows on designer Derek McLane's set show the rain and occasional flashes of lighting that continue throughout the 90-minute play. She leaves voice messages for her 18-year-old son, Jamal, who has been missing since 8 o'clock that evening.
Inexperienced, naïve Officer Larkin (Jeremy Jordan), staffing the overnight desk, returns to her with the little information he says he knows; that the car she reported Jamal left home in has been logged into the system. He says the reason isn't specified, but that it could be for something as innocuous as a traffic ticket. There's protocol to be followed and Larkin's hands are tied until the arrival of the AM liaison officer, who he says should be on his way.
Meanwhile, there are standard questions to be asked, but the officer's inquiries about Jamal possibly having a street name or gold teeth leave the impression that he's stereotyping her private school educated, West Point-bound son as a gang member.
Kendra is separated from her white FBI agent husband, Scott (Steven Pasquale), who soon arrives with a take charge attitude and a smooth way of ingratiating himself to the officer, white guy to white guy.
The African-American man who is the AM liaison officer, Lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee) enters the picture just as Scott is losing his temper and is demanding the information that he's certain Larkin is not privileged to reveal.
The playwright seems determined to introduce every racially-orientated aspect of the situation into the continuous one-act. Aside from the casual racism that Larkin doesn't seem to be aware he's expressing, and Stokes' moment with Kendra where he condescendingly tries to explain the facts of race and law enforcement, there is a good deal of friction between the separated couple regarding how their son is being raised without Scott's constant presence. The white father rejects any hint of victimization and any suggestion that his son can't avoid racism by simply not making foolish decisions, such as wearing cornrows and, as it turns out, riding in a car displaying a bumper sticker with an inflammatory message about cops.
And then there's an inconclusive video shot by a witness that pops up on Scott's phone.
The play can get a bit didactic, and the coincidences that fuel the storytelling can get strained, but under director Kenny Leon, the cast is convincing.
AMERICAN SON may not be a great play, but the fact that it exists on Broadway and is encouraging discussion about these issues while they are still dividing this country makes it an important one. It speaks the uncomfortable truths and it speaks them loudly and clearly.