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BWW Review: AMERICAN SON takes audiences on emotional ride at Theatre Baton Rouge


Running now through October 4th

BWW Review: AMERICAN SON takes audiences on emotional ride at Theatre Baton Rouge
Mercedes Wilson stars in AMERICAN SON as Kendra. Photos by Kenneth Mayfield

Imagine being the parent of a perfect son, who is active in his private school, earns top scores on his SATs, and is heading to West Point in a month. Then one night, he goes missing, and it is unheard of for him not to let you know about his whereabouts. Then you find yourself in a police station trying to find out information about an incident with your son.
Now imagine your son is black.
Written by Christopher Demos-Brown, AMERICAN SON is set during the middle of the night at a South Florida police station where a separated husband and wife search for their missing African American teenage son. It is a tale of two people on opposite sides of our national divide, with the fate of their son hanging in the balance.
AMERICAN SON premiered at the Berkshires' Barrington Stage Company in 2016. The play gained considerable attention in New York City with the announcement that director Kenny Leon was bringing the show to Broadway, with Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan, and Eugene Lee in starring roles. Demos-Brown, a white lawyer from Miami, was inspired to write AMERICAN SON after reading transcripts of cases. The play has indisputable tragic weight inspired by unaccountable police officers' unjustifiable killing of unarmed black men in America.
Director Greg Williams Jr. and an exemplary cast at Theatre Baton Rouge take the audience on an emotional roller coaster from the first few minutes. There are heated outbursts, a couple of awkward laughs, and tender moments along with plenty of dramatic twists that revolve around family turmoil and racial identity.

BWW Review: AMERICAN SON takes audiences on emotional ride at Theatre Baton Rouge
Austin Ventura and Mercedes Wilson

AMERICAN SON sheds light on how factors such as gender, education, and social class can shift perspective on race and justice. While the writing can feel reaching at times in the hands of a white playwright, it delves into great complexity. Like many waiting plays, AMERICAN SON does not have so much a plot as it poses a single, powerful question: What happened to Jamal?
The strong company is led by Mercedes Wilson as Jamal's mother, Kendra. During the play's opening, she is first on the scene, and her anxiety is largely written on Wilson's delicate and expressive face while trying to reach her son on his cellphone. As the play progresses, there is a shifting tide of emotions and reactions from Kendra. You can feel her rage and despair as Wilson perfectly captures the all-consuming fear that comes with being a mother to a black child yet still carrying the weight of trauma on her shoulders.
Austin Ventura plays white officer Paul Larkin, who has been assigned to answer Kendra's questions as best he can within police protocol limits. While he tries to keep her calm as they await a more senior officer's arrival, he fails to connect with her by making assumptions about Jamal and Kendra herself that only adds fuel to the fire. Ventura is naturally charming, so when his character suffers from foot-in-mouth disease, it adds believable tension.
As Kendra's husband, Scott, Tim Sandifer, is a loving, caring father but is not above using his privilege as a white FBI agent to get the information he wants. But it is because of his privilege that he is at first unable to put himself in the shoes of his son, who is suffering a crisis of identity. Only because of the aftermath of his Jamal's encounter with the police does Scott begin to understand his son.
As a more senior officer, Roger Ferrier brings a commanding presence and a black police officer's perspective.
The history of young black men killed by white officers isn't dwelled on, but we feel it in the background as race becomes the driving force behind every comment and potential overreaction. When Larkin asks for Jamal's description, he seeks street names, gang tattoos, or anything resembling stereotypical depictions. As his mother, Kendra fights back by saying he is a fan of Emily Dickinson and cries when he hears Puff the Magic Dragon.

BWW Review: AMERICAN SON takes audiences on emotional ride at Theatre Baton Rouge
Tim Sandifer as Scott

Under the fine direction of Williams, there's barely a false moment in the production. For a 90-minute production, the story runs nonstop in real-time, but the weight of time is still present with every word. Everything happens naturally even as rationale begins to fade while the important question still looms over the audience's heads. What has happened to Jamal?
Theater companies have been grappling with the question of how to put on shows without putting their audiences at risk since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Theatre Baton Rouge took action to answer that question. The theatre is following COVID precautions that allow AMERICAN SON to be presented in the safest way possible. Audience members will be required to wear face masks in the theatre, and seats will be spaced out following social distancing guidelines. It has been six months since I've watched live theatre, and I couldn't have felt safer than when I watched this production.

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