Review of American Son, TheaterWorks
A woman sits alone checking her cellphone in the waiting area of a Miami police station. She’s clearly upset. An officer finally appears and confirms that her missing son’s car has been involved in an incident, with no further information. The woman is black, the officer, a baby-faced newbie, is white. Her efforts to get some definite information—such as her son’s whereabouts—meet with patient, evasive feints and excuses. We can believe the officer simply doesn’t know or that he doesn’t want her to know. She should just wait for the officer in charge.
Who arrives first is her estranged husband, an FBI agent and white, whom—while the woman is away getting a drink of water—the officer mistakes for the awaited Lieutenant and so immediately reveals more than he told the woman and also his discomfort with the aggressive black woman. Contrived? Yes, and what’s more it makes for a fuzziness that the play—American Son by Christopher Demos-Brown, now playing at TheaterWorks, directed by Rob Ruggiero—wants to maintain as a strength. Instead of giving us the officer’s clearly marked preference for speaking to a white father rather than a black mother, we get a deeply dumb mistaken identity.
Despite that and other ham-fisted efforts to push its audience’s buttons, American Son does one thing well: it dramatizes, thanks to Ami Brabson’s performance as Kendra Ellis-Connor, a mother’s mounting frustration at not getting answers, her terror at her worst fears, and her educated contempt for the automatic racist assumptions of by-the-book Officer Larkin (John Ford-Dunker). The anxiety parents feel for teens launching into adult life in these highly violent times is rendered well, and, as we learn more and more about the son’s recent actions, the fear of what might befall a black youth in an expensive car feels like a fait accompli given the times we live in.
And yet Demos-Brown’s script tries hard to place this investigation of racial profiling and police malfeasance in a neutral area where mistakes happen, and all are to blame. It implies that the real fault lies with how this interracial couple failed their son.
Kendra Ellis-Connor is a smart, articulate psychologist. Her profession seems to have been chosen so she can mouth Psych 101 assessments of the difficulties an 18-year-old is having because his white father left his black mother for a white woman. And yet she finds it impossible to speak to the plodding Officer Larkin with anything less then barely suppressed hysteria, or, when asked to describe her son, she veers from rejection of his presumed tats, earrings and gold teeth, to his fondness for Emily Dickinson and “Puff the Magic Dragon.” (Demos-Brown’s idea of how to cut tension is to employ bathos. It’s his go-to tone more than once.)
The father, Scott Connor (J Anthony Crane), not only spells “privileged white” with his look and every word and move (Crane is very well-cast and looks the part), he’s very manly in his plans for his son’s future and in his testosterone-fueled rage at, first, that plodding officer, and, second, the lieutenant on the case, Stokes (Michael Genet), who is black. The tension in the fight scene, no matter how well enacted, feels like an imposition. Much of the escalation in anger has to do with a video clip on a smartphone that we can’t see and can barely hear. Suffice to say, it adds a sense of emergency.
The earlier discussions between Scott and Kendra about their son, Jamal (including a reminiscence about how they disagreed about naming him!), pile up into a sketch of the only black kid at an elite school where he’s forced to be “the face of the race”; he resents his father’s desertion and, in retaliation, has begun to act “ghetto,” including a bumper-sticker on the Lexus his dad bought him that might be deemed incendiary to law officers. He’s a cipher at the center of all this.
As Officer Larkin, Ford-Dunker seems as doughy as the Dunkins he likes to imbibe. One suspects, from the first scene, that there might be a version of this play in which Officer Larkin can be perceived as hostile to or at least uncomfortable with black women, but director Ruggiero seems to steer this version of the play so that the officers are seen as exemplars of dogged patience rather than anything more abrasive. Even Stokes, who explodes at Scott’s provocations, maintains his professionalism, mostly. As Stokes, Genet is good with the man-to-man tone in his effort to calm Connor down, which only infuriates the unruly agent more, and his interactions with Brabson, in a bit of who can out-black whom, have the impatient energy of a decent man tired of being seen as a bad guy.
The end of all this—including an unlikely interlude in which Kendra asks Scott why he spoke to her when they first met—is a foregone conclusion. Still, Demos-Brown seems to pride himself on creating the most implausible, but just possible, scenario as the gotcha moment his play aims toward.
Which may invite one to reflect whether the outrageous injustices and bad choices that occur in real life become anything more than a basis for melodrama when invoked through contrived situations and ill-conceived characters. When awful things happen in life, survivors often remark “it felt like a movie” to underscore its seeming unreality. Rarely, if ever, does one say, if felt like a contrived one-act, but that’s what Demos-Brown provides, turning national tragedies into topical theater.
By Christopher Demos-Brown
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Set Design: Brian Prather; Costume Design: Herin Kaputkin; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Frederick Kennedy; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth
Cast: Ami Brabson, J Anthony Crane, John Ford Dunker, Michael Genet
October 18-November 23, 2019