“American Son” is a tense, didactic Broadway play for our age of racially charged mistrust. In its best moments, all of which involve the star Kerry Washington, this work by lawyer-playwright Christopher Demos-Brown offers up a searing depiction of an endemic fear of African-American mothers of all social classes: That on any given night, a young black teenager with all the promise and skills in the world will not necessarily come back home alive. Especially if that evening involves a confrontation with the police.
So powerful is the maternal anxiety here that you walk out of the Booth Theatre wondering at what point we might really begin listening to these mothers. At the very least, everyone gets to walk awhile in their shoes. And Washington, whose entire performance is all the way to the right of the dial, given the bad-to-worse circumstances in which her character finds herself, ensures you won’t quickly forget.
Washington, very moving throughout, plays Kendra, a professional woman in Miami with a broken marriage to Scott (Steven Pasquale), an FBI agent. The two have an 18-year-old son who has not been seen since much earlier in the evening. The kid is economically privileged — cash in his pocket, private schools and a Lexus.
But in recent weeks, Kendra worries aloud: This child of a mixed-race marriage has had “an awakening” and made his appearance and demeanor far more potentially threatening to whites. He even has a bumper sticker on his car advocating the shooting of cops — with a phone camera, but that’s in small print.
As ominous rain falls outside the windows of Derek McLane’s set, Kendra has shown up at the police station demanding to know her beloved son’s current whereabouts. Since he’s technically an adult, she’s told only that his car is somewhere in the “system.” Maybe the kid himself is somewhere in the “system,” but specific information as to his whereabouts trickles out agonizingly slowly — both to her and to us — over the next 85 minutes.
The missing-person mystery is unpacked through a series of short scenes, first with Kendra and a junior officer, Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan), who affects concern but only while unleashing a variety of racial insensitivities and bumbling unkindnesses (he won’t even bring this scared mother a glass of water). Then scenes unspool with Kendra, Officer Larkin and Scott, the father. Finally, an African-American lieutenant (played by an unstinting Eugene Lee) shows up, and the play, which is never dull, becomes yet more incendiary.
There are numerous incredulities. Even if you fully believe the inciting incident (much empirical evidence says you should), “American Son” has nagging issues. Neither parent seems to recognize the usefulness of having an attorney at your side when the police are obfuscating. Neither thinks to track their son’s phone (technology has made missing-person plays a lot harder to write), nor call his pals, nor check his social media accounts (the cops have to remind them about those, and they go prowling with no access to his passwords). No one seems to know of reporters. And this FBI agent seems to have no friends anywhere in this station, which is tough to believe, given the tight law enforcement network.
The play would be much better if the anxiety of these parents were matched by a more credible level of flustered action among the police authorities. These days, cops are well aware of the optics of everything, especially where potential allegations of misconduct are involved. In the circumstances unfolding here, they would, at the very least, be coming up with water for a thirsty mom. They’d be covering their tracks so fast, they’d deliver a crate.
So you have to get past all that schematic writing to get to the deeper point, which is that racism poisons everything — marriages, justice, economic progress, decent black police officers, even hope for the American future. The two ex-spouses fight as proxies for their identities: Scott argues Kendra has encouraged the kid to be “too black.” Kendra says the kid was mad at having been abandoned by his rich, white dad. The African-American cop is caught in the middle.
The piece wrestles with crucial issues and is performed with enough intensity by Pasquale and Washington under Kenny Leon’s theme-based direction that they effectively collide with your own prejudices, whomever you might be. You feel everything the characters feel, and, given the crisis we’re all in, that has worth.