Review: ‘American Son’ At Barrington Stage Company
By Dan Shaw
Barrington Stage Company’s world premiere production of Christopher Demos-Brown’s “American Son” is meant to provoke discussion about race in America. For audience members like myself who arrive in Pittsfield with their white privilege, it’s difficult to analyze the play because any opinions about plot points, character development or an actor’s performance have the potential to seem laden with bias. I wouldn’t dare speculate to know what it’s like to be an African American in the audience. And that seems to be the point of “American Son”: Despite decades of progress since the civil rights movement began, racism remains embedded in our society and all conversations about race are potentially combustible.
Set in the wee hours of a present day Miami-Dade County police station (masterfully rendered by scenic designer Brian Prather with a full drop ceiling illuminated by institutional lighting) the play opens with a bourgeois African American woman in her 40s sitting alone. She is anxiously trying to reach her 18-year-old son, Jamal, on his cell phone and demanding that a young white police officer tell her if he is all right after she’s been told his car was in an “incident.” She is jittery, scared, angry. But should she express her rage so transparently to the officer she wants to help her get information about her son? Shouldn’t she be trying to sweet talk him instead? What would a white mother do? Would a white mother of a white son, who’s about to start his freshman year at West Point, even be in this situation? When the white officer tries to understand and appease her, she shoots back: Do you have any teenage black sons? Let’s skip the empathy tactics—you have no idea. Checkmate or stalemate?
Demos-Brown has written a one act treatise on the limitation of blacks’ and whites’ understanding each other. When Jamal’s white father, who works for the FBI, arrives at the police station, he gets more answers about his son’s whereabouts than his wife did. But his latent white privilege enrages his wife as well as the black police officer he recklessly challenges.
“American Son” is riveting, but that’s partly because you’re anticipating something more shocking and incendiary to happen, which it ultimately does. Tamara Tunie makes the role of Kendra Ellis-Connor, the frantic mother, entirely believable though her performance feels almost too naturalistic; she doesn’t own the stage as she might. As the young white police officer, Luke Smith comes across as a bit naïve for a cop in a big city like Miami; there are moments when he seems like he’d be more at home as the sidekick to Barney Fife on the ancient “Andy Griffith Show.” Michael Hayden, as the white FBI father Scott Connor, is tightly wound but the script has him react to events in a manner that does not quite seem entirely credible (but then I don’t have a child and can’t fully understand his predicament.) But Andre Ware as Lt. John Stokes takes command of the play when he finally arrives on stage. He convincingly captures the double bind that black police officers face today when confronted by young black men that they perceive to be threatening.
Barrington Stage Company commissioned this play knowing it would be mounted in Pittsfield, which has had more than its share of crime problems this spring. BSC has a long tradition of mounting shows that have contemporary relevance, and it’s fitting that BSC, which is committed to local audience engagement, will hold a symposium, “Race, Bias and Culture in Present-Day America,” on July 2 and 3. Directed by Barrington Stage artistic director Julianne Boyd, “American Son” has sharp dialogue that makes you snap to attention. It grapples with one of the most urgent issues of our time and inevitably leads to unsettling after-theater conversations. Whether you’re white or black (or another minority group that faces racial, religious or ethnic profiling), “American Son” forces you to think deeply as good theater should. It’s 85 minutes of time well spent.
“American Son” (through July 9)
Barrington Stage Company