Review: AMERICAN SON at Ensemble Theatre At The New Vic

Runs through April 24

By: Apr. 13, 2022
Review: AMERICAN SON at Ensemble Theatre At The New Vic
Photo Credit: Zach Mendez

There's a lot to like about Ensemble's production of American Son, Christopher Demos-Brown's play about race and privilege in American society. The play feels timely and pertinent, broaching topics that bear weight on the minds of today's human in America: namely those born from the insistent racism that seems grossly intrinsic to our culture. This representation of current events and culture is an important role for theatrical storytelling.

In the play, Kendra (Tracey A. Leigh), who is Black, and Scott (Jamison Jones), who is white, have a bi-racial son who has come into some trouble with the law. They have learned that he was involved with a traffic stop, and they think he's detained by the police. They spend an agonizing 90 minutes in the police precinct awaiting news of their son, but are given the run-around by the officer on the graveyard shift.

Kendra and Scott don't agree on much. They separated a few months prior to the events in the play, and they maintain the comfort and energy of a long-term couple, even though much of that energy is frustration. During their time waiting for the force's AM liaison to arrive, they argue about their disparate perceptions of and experiences with raising a person of color. In terms of the writing, the concept of the show is a bit contrived, but this production, directed by Jonathan Fox, pushes forward and keeps the action moving at a steady pace. Tensions mount, and performances from strong actors support that momentum toward an intense climax. The last moments of the play are brutal, to a point that it feels almost inappropriate to applaud seconds after the lights go out on such an intense scene.

Review: AMERICAN SON at Ensemble Theatre At The New Vic
Photo Credit Zach Mendez

Where the play snags is in the attempt to create characters that offer nuanced viewpoints on their experiences with or as people of color. The only character that comes across as having a totally up-to-date modern viewpoint is Kendra. Scott is a bit oblivious as a father, and lacks sensitivity around his wife's valid concerns about their son facing racism as a bi-racial individual. Of the two police officers we meet, officer Larkin (Toby Tropper) is flippant about his characterization of Kendra, and Lieutenant Stokes (Alex Morris) is so jaded and harsh in his characterization of the Black experience that it's difficult to relate to their points of view. With such over-the-top characters, potential nuance in their interactions goes out the window.

Nevertheless, American Son is an engaging production that holds audiences rapt with attention for the entirety of the play. It's the most exciting piece of theater Ensemble has produced this season, and I appreciate the choice to grapple with grittier material. American Son is worth the watch for strong performances, thought-worthy material, and an intense emotional summit.

American Son
By Christopher Demos-Brown
Directed by Jonathan Fox

April 7-24, 2022
New Vic Theatre