Very few plays are essential for our times. This one is. More than a “must-see,” Christopher Demos-Brown’s "American Son," at George Street Playhouse through Feb. 26, will rock your foundation.
Director David Saint, George Street’s artistic director, first read the play when it was submitted for the Laurents/Hatcher Award, an honor it eventually won. He knew then that George Street had to present it, following its June debut by the Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts.
The play is nothing short of incendiary. It reflects the headlines as America struggles with a racial divide that has persisted since the Emancipation Proclamation. In 90 minutes of sizzling drama, Demos-Brown brings to bear all of the conflicting demands and emotions in complex relationships, both personal and societal.
The title refers to the central character, Jamal, who is conspicuously always off stage. The stark set design by Jason Simms is a police-station waiting room somewhere in Miami-Dade County, Florida. A black woman, Kendra Ellis-Connor (Suzzanne Douglas), nervously awaits word about her 18-year-old son, who has not come home after a night out. There’s a report that his car has been involved in “an incident,” as the rookie white police officer Paul Larkin (Mark Junek), tells her.
His failure to get more information is driving her mad, as is her husband’s failure to arrive. The answers will have to come from Lieutenant John Stokes (Mark Kenneth Smaltz), a black officer who isn’t due in for a couple of hours. The play ratchets up the tension as the uncertainty builds.
Part of that uncertainty has to do with assumptions that throw people off — characters and audience alike. Mr. Demos-Brown has packed the play with oppositions — black versus white, rookie cop versus seasoned officer, ex-wife versus ex-husband. In the middle is the couple’s son, who is just about to enter a world that will challenge him as a man of color.
Jamal's father, Scott (played by John Bolger), is a white FBI agent whose fragile relationship with Jamal’s mother is tested. Each has a very different view of their boy’s attitudes and his future. Knowing what he lost from a father who left the home, Kendra also knows the dangers Jamal faces in a city whose racial divide is so stark. Scott, on the other hand, has high hopes for the boy. Jamal, he thinks, will take the world by storm with an acceptance at West Point. For him, it’s a matter of bringing his son up to enter what’s essentially a white, privileged world.
The tension escalates as the frustrated parents struggle with each other. Their misperceptions of the other’s racial experience has pushed them apart, even while their shared love of their son binds them together. Both struggle with the officers as they try to sort out their differences and discover what’s happened to Jamal.
All the characters touch on a different side of complicated questions: how do you balance prejudice, both conscious and unconscious, against the need for law and order? How do you promote justice and opportunity for everyone in a society that is stubbornly torn? The issues are so starkly portrayed, and the dialogue so compelling, you are inexorably drawn into the play. You’re confronted with your own attitudes as you deal with the conflicts. Where do you come out? No easy answers are offered for a lot of troubling questions.
There are some funny and tender moments, too, especially when Kendra and Scott recall earlier times, and the joys they shared with their young son. But those are brief respites. This is a play where people don’t discuss and exchange views — they shout. They challenge. They accuse. They resist. And the decibel level rises to a stunning climax.
Mr. Demos-Brown has drawn on his background as a Miami prosecutor, and his experience in police “ride-alongs,” to create a drama with gritty authenticity. His characters and their speech are believable. You feel as if you’re in the middle of a tense standoff between police and parents. And you can identify with their fears and frustrations on all sides.
The cast is simply brilliant. Ms. Douglas is heartrending as a mother who’s frustrated, angered, dismayed, wistful, and proud, in a wild emotional ride. It’s a stunning performance. As the husband, Mr. Bolger is a man on the edge, torn by his race, his ambitions for his son, and his powerlessness. His privileged position doesn’t protect him. As a clueless rookie cop who plays by the rules, Mr. Junek portrays a well-intentioned young man who can’t get out of his own way. His faux-pas bring some humor to his scenes. And Mr. Smaltz is pitch-perfect as the seasoned, seen-it-all policeman. He understands perfectly what the mother is going through. But he’s in an awkward position — upholding law and order at a time when policing is seen as an oppressive force that is unfairly weighed against his own race.
George Street has provided a space for audience members to reflect on their own feelings after engaging with this powerful play. You can write on a chalk-board and share your thoughts, your fears, and your hopes. This is a work that provokes and challenges in a way that only theater can do, it is essential