There’s a box of doughnuts center stage in Derek McLane’s set for American Son that, try as I might, I couldn’t ignore. Other than a momentary gag about cops liking them, they don’t matter in the play. But I kept thinking about those baked goodies. First: Because their warm, cinnamon smell wafted across the orchestra. And second, unfortunately: They reminded me that American Son is likewise appealing, but hollow inside.
That conclusion gives me no joy, since the 85-minute drama is about serious issues of race and policing that have torn communities apart. The subject is an estranged interracial couple and their son. The son has gone missing in the middle of the night in Miami, Florida. We’re in a police station at four in the morning with rain pouring outside, as the increasingly frantic Kendra (Kerry Washington) urges passive-aggressive officer Larkin (Jeremy Jordan) to find out what happened to her son. From the start, we feel the tension between the black mother and the white cop, as he dutifully gathers details about her son Jamal. Did he have any gold teeth? A “street name?” Any identifying scars? All questions to imply that Jamal must be a gang member.
Playwright Christopher Demos-Brown sketches these little flares of institutional racism and microaggression with some skill – even if he over-eggs the pudding with Larkin’s especially clueless reference to Jim Crow-era segregated water fountains. The keynote of the night is the racist, binary structure of American society, and the playwright never lets us forget it.
Enter Kendra’s husband, the very white and take-charge FBI officer Scott (Steven Pasquale), and we begin the marriage-counseling portion of the evening. In a play that happens in less than 90 minutes of real time, any writer has their work cut out for them in terms of getting us to invest in this couple, fast. Moreover, we need to learn how their son became so disturbed and sullen that he would plaster a bumper sticker that reads SHOOT COPS on his car.
Demos-Brown’s answer is facile: When Scott walked out on Kendra and Jamal, the young man got woke and started associating with less responsible peers. The problem is that it’s hard to imagine than in 17-plus years, Kendra and Scott haven’t discussed race with their son, or each other. Scott’s disappointment in Jamal’s low-slung jeans and cornrow hairstyle sounds like the grumbling of a recent adoptive father, not a dad who left five months ago. Kendra’s long, elegiac monologue expressing her fears of white-on-black violence feels forced and self-consciously poetic. The backstory contains too much offstage drama, happening too fast. That’s because ultimately, these aren’t people; they’re sociological glyphs.
The introduction of a cellphone video, texted to Scott from his brother (from a TV station), quickly ramps up the ugly possibility everyone in the audience has entertained: Jamal may have been pulled over and shot. Eugene Lee appears as a veteran black cop, Lieutenant John Stokes, whose attempt to instill order and shed light only pushes Scott to his breaking point, as he blusters his way into handcuffs and a summons. In lieu of plot, Demos-Brown deploys one delay tactic after another, prolonging the journey to the catharsis-cum-revelation we all expect.
Kenny Leon’s smoothly naturalistic production – drab furniture, rainfall, those fragrant doughnuts! – does this on-the-nose piece no favors. Acting isn’t the problem. Washington, hair pulled back and clad simply in jeans and sneakers, eschews the telegenic glamour that made her famous on Scandal. Even if she’s naturally charismatic and sympathetic, she uses too much “head voice” and isn’t particularly convincing as a professor or a mother. Pasquale, though, is stage creature, cruelly handsome and able to toggle between hero and heel, cocky Fed and frustrated father. It’s more a question of overall theatrical tone. A sparer, more abstract approach could have been more powerful. There is evocative, heartfelt writing in the last third of the play. The couple waxes nostalgic about how they met at a party, and share tender memories of Jamal as a child. And the gravelly, dead-eyed Stokes – black, authoritarian, but not pitiless – almost begs for his own play. But the earnest realism in which Leon wraps the drama only underscores its sermonizing contrivances.
It’s important to have a Black Lives Matter drama on Broadway now; I’m just not sure American Son (pretentious title) is the one. It tells us things we already know, in language we don’t believe, spoken by characters we never get to know. Its theatrical form – observing the unities, introducing a messenger with bloody offstage news – hearkens back to Greek tragedy, but the tragedy of our present doesn’t fully come through.
David Cote is a theater critic, reporter, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.