It’s four a.m. on a dark and rainy morning in playwright Christopher Demos-Brown’s gripping play, “American Son,” and Kendra Ellis-Connor (Kerry Washington) and Scott Connor (Scott Pasquale), estranged for the past four months, meet in a Miami police station under nervewracking conditions. Their son and some of his friends have had an unexplained run-in with the highway police — and this bad news is all the more worrying for being so vague.
Kendra and Scott are no ordinary couple, and their kid is no ordinary kid. She teaches psychology and he’s an FBI agent who conspicuously wears his shield on his belt. They sent their 18-year-old son, Jamal, to the very best schools — his prep school graduation present was the very car that got him into trouble — and he’s about to enter West Point. But at the moment, Jamal is not answering the quickly mounting messages on his cell phone and his parents are frantic.
Kendra is first on the scene and her anxiety is writ large on Washington’s delicate but expressive face as she paces in the public waiting room of the precinct house. Director Kenny Leon has assembled a solid creative workforce for this moody play, and the setting is a cold and heartless place in Derek McLane’s design.
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There is something both disturbing and soothing about the torrential rain and occasional flashes of lightning battering the bare wall-to-wall windows. Thanks to the inescapably bleak lighting by Peter Kaczorowski and to Peter Fitzgerald’s noticeably assertive sound design, the weather patterns all too accurately reflect the emotions of the characters who become trapped in this room.
It’s hard to take your eyes off Washington’s Kendra, whose anguish seems to have taken over her entire body. As a mother, she knows that even a sweet, well-brought-up child can find trouble in this world. And as a black woman, she knows that life is never easy for a young black man, no matter what his background. All these thoughts register so vividly on Washington’s face, we can almost hear her thoughts as she thinks the worst.
There’s something so tender and troubled about Kendra’s attempt to make a police officer see her “boy” in the beefy six-foot young man who can’t be found at this ungodly hour. “Walks like a jock, but he can recite almost any Emily Dickinson poem,” she says, “and he’s afraid of clowns.”
But for someone so well-educated — a professor of psychology, no less — Kendra is remarkably stupid about her interaction with the inexperienced young Officer Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan, very keen but properly cowed by this woman) who is on the night watch. No matter how many times the cop assures Kendra that he has no further knowledge other than that Jamal was “identified in an incident,” Kendra keeps yelling — make that screeching — at him for more info. Jordan mildly conveys Officer Larkin’s naivete without making him downright dumb, but the beleaguered cop deserves a pay raise for putting up with Kendra’s condescending hauteur.
Officer Larkin’s meek fallback phrase — “No disrespect, ma’am, but we have a protocol” — infuriates a mother for whom protocol means nothing where her only child is concerned. But lacking both experience and imagination, the rookie cop clings to that protocol because it’s all he knows.
Playwright Demos-Brown is a clever phrase-maker, and he delights in using language that vividly illustrates the social and educational gulf between Larkin and Kendra. Lacking a common language, they fail to communicate on even the most basic level. The cop’s awkward efforts to find out if Jamal goes by any other names is a sad but funny example of that lack of communication: “If he was taken into custody under a different alias… Gave a different… you know… different from some other time… is all I’m sayin’…” The concept of a street name is so totally foreign to Kendra that she honestly doesn’t understand what Officer Larkin is asking her.
The aggravating thing is, when Kendra’s estranged husband Scott arrives in the authoritative person of Pasquale, Officer Larkin miraculously acquires quite a bit of additional information about Jamal’s whereabouts. Although race undoubtedly plays a huge part in the couple’s lives, this particularly infuriating moment is all about their gender roles. The little lady can scream the place down all she wants, but it isn’t until her big, manly husband arrives on the scene that we get some straight talk from the close-mouthed cops.
In the end, though, this thoughtful play is really about the character who isn’t there — Jamal. As his parents bicker and blame one another for their son’s aberrant behavior, Jamal comes alive as a bright, sensitive young man whose moral equilibrium has been severely shaken by his parents’ breakup, to the point where he may have run off in his new car and done something stupid.
This is hardly the first play to examine the unique difficulty of being a young black man trying to assert himself in an indifferent, even hostile society. But this is a play that really makes you feel for that young man (who doesn’t even appear, it should be noted) as well as for his parents. That’s pretty good for a play that’s probably a bit too small for Broadway and a bit too narrow to throw a long shadow, but still manages to get under your skin.