American Son, with Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale in career-best performances, demands to be seen. Find out why in this week’s Deeper Cut.
American theater is an underappreciated art form: raw, real and in the moment, as it unfolds right in front of the audience. American Son, the new Broadway play, is the best production to come out of the theater in a decade and a heartbreaking commentary on the state of America.
The premise, courtesy of playwright Christopher Demos-Brown, is deceptively simple: a couple are in a Florida police station, worried about their son, who missed curfew the night before and hasn’t come home.
There’s immediate drama there, tension with which everyone can identify. Everyone can grasp the parents’ concern about their child, and understand why a child would be out too late. Having such an understandable setup is disarming; the audience can connect with the material right away, and even think that they know what’s going on.
Until, of course, they don’t. Not even close.
That’s because there’s so much more at work in American Son, layers upon layers that Demos-Brown doesn’t wait to unravel. The couple aren’t actually a couple; Kendra (Kerry Washington, of Scandal fame) and Scott (Steven Pasquale, The Good Wife) have separated by the time the play begins.
Their son Jamal isn’t just being a teenager. In fact, he’s not a teenager at all, having just recently turned 18, which makes him legally an adult.
And the police officers on the case, Officer Paul Larkin (Supergirl‘s Jeremy Jordan) and Lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee from Gem of the Ocean) aren’t your typical cops.
What should have been a simple situation, ought to have been a simple situation, is anything but. The audience is tossed into the complete unknown, with the only thing that’s certain being the dynamic performances, particularly by Washington and Pasquale. For all both of them have done, neither of them have ever been better than in American Son.
The energy of American Son rests on Kerry Washington’s shoulders. Her character Kendra is the first person we meet when the curtain rises, and the one we spend the first portion of the play with. It’s Kendra who is waiting for Larkin to give her some answers, Kendra who calls Scott as he’s on his way to the police station, Kendra who’s still leaving messages for Jamal hoping that he’ll phone her back and this whole thing will blow over.
Kendra is the heart of the production, because she’s the one who expresses everything that’s being felt. She pours out her fear about the fate of her son, her anger that the police aren’t doing enough or that her husband isn’t there when he should be, but also her frustration at how the situation is handled and the climate that’s contributed to it.
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She is not, by far, the histrionic mom clutching her purse and needing to be calmed down. She’s an intelligent woman who can tell when she’s being placated and isn’t afraid to use her voice. She is a professor, a spouse, a woman, a daughter. Being a mother is just one part of who Kendra is, not all she’s written as.
Washington has to portray a broad spectrum of emotions, sometimes several of them across the same scene. She has to reach deep down to pull out explosions of grief, anger, regret, indignation, self-loathing and more — not just portraying each feeling but full-on explosions that make them palpable and real to the audience. It’s an incredibly demanding role in which she essentially breaks her own character.
While she’s been through a number of emotional scenes in her career, be it as Olivia Pope in ABC‘s Scandal, in films like Django Unchained, or when she played Anita Hill in HBO‘s Confirmation, she’s never had to go so far as she does in American Son. And Washington is able to navigate the highs and lows as if this is completely natural.
In direct contrast to Kendra’s fire and fury is Jamal’s father, Scott. He’s much more measured and patient, in part because he happens to be an FBI agent. That’s an interesting wrinkle that wasn’t necessary, but shows the depth that Demos-Brown has brought to the play. Scott straddles the line between being the father and being one of the cops. It’s something that the character uses to his advantage, but also something that the audience has to chew on.
Steven Pasquale carries himself with the stage presence that one would expect when playing a federal agent in a police station. He’s in his element, with a natural confidence, and Pasquale has a way of delivering his lines that is calm and collected. Scott is trying to reassure Kendra, and also somewhat reassuring the audience at the same time. He’s in control, he knows how this works, he isn’t worried about it at all — for now.
Pasquale’s performance in American Son is particularly interesting, because he was on the other side of similar themes in 2016 when he portrayed Mark Fuhrman in FX‘s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.
Having seen him embody a man whom some people associate with racism in the police force, it’s impressive to then watch him flip the script and play a character who is now arguing that racism isn’t always present and that the system can work. Scott is someone the audience can embrace, just as much as we root for Kendra, even though throughout most of American Son they are on other sides of a massive divide.
But Demos-Brown does a very smart thing here; he has completely developed each character in three dimensions. He doesn’t just put Scott and Kendra on opposite sides and let them fight; he knows that these are two characters who were once married and who have a child together, and he wisely emphasizes as much of their love for each other and the things they have in common as he does the things that have driven them apart.
Steven Pasquale and Kerry Washington have a painfully beautiful chemistry together. They’re able to bring out those nuances in the script. Audiences understand the arc of their relationship, as the actors imbue their toughest moments with just a little hope, and make their best moments a little bittersweet. If this story was just about Kendra and Scott, we’d be rooting for them to reconcile, because we can see how much they care about each other and make each other better, as difficult as it is.
But it isn’t. What makes American Son transcendent, what elevates it from simply a great piece of drama to an important piece of commentary about the state of this nation, is that it speaks to far more than one story.
Jeremy Jordan and Eugene Lee play the other half of the equation—the police officers tasked with finding out what happened to Jamal Connor. With the way both are introduced, American Son feels like it’s going to be an indictment of the police, a one-sided teardown with the cops as antagonists to the desperate family.
But again, that’s Demos-Brown creating a false assumption, and then showing the audience how it’s only part of the story. Yes, there are times when both officers are insufferable; Larkin at first seems like he can’t wait to get away from Kendra, and Stokes arrives with a touch of arrogance as if being in charge means that he has absolute power to do whatever he wants. There is one scene later in the play where audiences will absolutely hate him.
Yet they, too, also have their own perspectives to bring to American Son‘s table. The play covers every base in making one officer white and the other black; each point of view is represented, not just “the cops” and “the parents” or “the black people” and “the white people.” No one fits into a stereotype. Even between Kendra and Stokes, although they are both African-American, they see the world very differently.
It’s when they arrive that the production starts to dig into every conceivable issue around what happened to Jamal, and what’s happening around him. Who was in the car with him? Could he have done something to invite trouble? What motivated him to go out that night in the first place? Where was he headed, and did he go somewhere that a young black man shouldn’t have gone?
But American Son isn’t a diatribe against a cruel world. Far from it, as it raises so many different points that prove everyone has a piece of the puzzle. While the cops search for the details, Kendra and Scott also talk at length about the failure of their relationship, raising their son, and how they see the world.
How did their separation affect Jamal? Who was at fault? Have they been doing what was best for the son they both dearly love, or just what they thought was best? How has it been for Jamal to be a mixed-race young man in a modern society that is so clearly polarized when it comes to race?
Of course, Jamal isn’t there to offer his point of view; his fate isn’t revealed until the conclusion of the play, and as each string is pulled, the audience becomes just as desperate to know where he is as his parents. He’s someone we comes to care about; even though we’re only hearing about him second-hand, it feels like we know him and understand the struggle he was going through before he ever disappeared.
But his conclusion becomes just one part of the complicated world of American Son. Each one of the four characters has something to offer, and something they need to think long and hard about. Each are flawed, but also not without admirable qualities. And most importantly, while all of them may think they’re right, none of them are ever presented as definitively right or wrong.
Demos-Brown isn’t pointing the finger at anyone or placing any blame with this play. Everyone is made to feel uncomfortable, and feel challenged, no matter who you are or what your background is. But everyone is also made to feel empathy and compassion, to be brought into the story until we’re all in it together.
This is an eye-opening reminder that there’s so much more happening in the world than we think, and that we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we simplify it down to one side or the other. By the end of American Son, the audience hasn’t just experienced a great drama with uniformly award-worthy performances, it’s also had a memorable human experience.
Within Kendra and Scott’s desperation, the audience also finds inspiration and motivation. Not to mention a story that will resonate with America long after American Son takes its final bow.
American Son is now playing at New York’s Booth Theatre until Jan. 27, 2019. Tickets and more information are available here. Find the next Deeper Cut every Wednesday in the Entertainment category at FanSided.