WHAT "American Son"
WHERE Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.
INFO From $59; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com
BOTTOM LINE Kerry Washington stars in a provocative look at our nation's racial division.
We hear the thunder before the curtain ever rises, a too obvious signal that darkness lurks.
But this is no Gothic melodrama. "American Son," Christopher Demos-Brown's provocative and timely play at the Booth Theatre, is a contemporary drama — a tense, realistic and extraordinarily personal examination of our nation's racial division.
In the sterile waiting room of a Miami police station shortly after 4 a.m., rain pouring from the foreshadowed storm, Kendra Connor (a raw, ready to implode Kerry Washington) is living the nightmare of every mother whose teenager hasn’t come home. Or, more specifically, the nightmare of the mother of a black son all too aware of the dangers that, despite his sheltered, privileged upbringing, might have befallen Jamal (a good boy on his way to West Point, who never so much as "tore the tag off a mattress").
Increasingly frantic, Kendra does what any mom would do — calls, texts, contacting his friends, all the while pleading for information from the clueless rookie officer (Jeremy Jordan) who insists on sticking to protocol and platitudes. “I completely understand your concern," he tells her several times, so lacking in empathy he fails to notice her unraveling.
A man with a badge on his belt arrives, presumably the liaison officer who may be able to shed more light on the missing boy. But no, this is Scott Connor (Stephen Pasquale, conflicted and intense), an FBI agent who is Jamal's father. Quickly it becomes apparent that this obviously affluent biracial couple (she's a college professor) has separated, and things get nasty, accusations flying — she’s too protective, he’s too accusatory.
The play, directed by Kenny Leon, makes no attempt to hide its agenda. As the plot unfurls and details slowly emerge about a traffic stop (Jamal's driving a silver Lexus, an 18th birthday present from his parents), there are few surprises. Demos-Brown, a Florida trial attorney, writes what he knows but breaks no new ground and offers no solutions. This probably wouldn't have made it to Broadway without the imprimatur of Washington, who has expressed in interviews that she hopes the play will force people to listen to each other in ways the characters do not.
When the liaison officer (Eugene Lee) finally does arrive with explanations that are difficult to watch, Kendra has already given us all the explanation we need, talking #BlackLivesMatter, mentioning Eric Garner and Michael Brown. "When these men get shot down," she screams to the world, "he can feel their ghosts." And ultimately, that's the play's major strength. By the time the curtain falls, so do the rest of us.