American Son is now streaming on Netflix.
By Aharon Nissel
American Son, which was released on Netflix last week following a 3-month run on Broadway, is complicated. Obviously, the issue of police brutality and race relations is already complicated, but this play adds a twist. The black “son” in question, has a black mom and a white dad.
The play, which takes place in a police station at 4 am consists of just four characters. Kendra (Kerry Washington), a black woman, is trying to pry information from Officer Larkin (Jeremy Jordan), a low-level cop about the disappearance of her black son, Jamal. Eventually, her white, FBI-agent husband Scott (Steven Pasquale) shows up. Kendra and Scott, who are no longer together, have much to argue about, so much so, that it’s hard for the audience to believe they ever really loved each other. Towards the end, the venerable Lt. John Stokes (Eugene Lee) shows up to deliver the news.
The script, by Christopher Demos-Brown, is really nothing exquisite in terms of playwriting. Despite focusing on a complex issue, it’s actually quite a simple script, but the cast has done excellent work given the material.
Washington’s and Jordan’s performances were, to me, very similar; both were bland. I don’t mean boring or badly acted. What I mean is they yelled when it felt appropriate to yell, laughed when it felt appropriate to laugh, and, in Washington’s case cried when it was time to cry. Both Jordan and Washington are excellent actors, and it shows, but in this performance, they maybe could’ve taken their abilities a bit further.
Pasquale and Lee were, for me, the interesting characters to follow. Pasquale, because you’re never really sure what to expect with his character. He oscillates between being nice to Larkin or yelling at him. Sometimes he laughs with Kendra, sometimes he can’t stand her. His emotions are varied – as real-life emotions are – and make for a powerful performance.
Lee excels despite his small role because he has so much resting on his character’s shoulders. Most of the play is spent waiting for him to show up. It is he who can obtain information about Jamal. Lt. Stokes has a relationship with each other character: his blackness links him to Kendra, but his role as a Lt. links him to Larkin and Scott. He is in a sense, on top. Everyone is waiting for him, almost looking up to him. And yet, Lee’s performance is subtle. He comes in with power, immediately making an arrest, and then moves to nuanced calm in which he and Kendra can speak to their truths as Black Americans.
It is Lee and Pasquale who really made the most of Demos-Brown’s script.
The opening is somewhat weak, which makes sense. It’s the intense, emotional moments in this play that are the best, and in the beginning, there’s the need to set up the situation. But as the play continues, it really finds its footing. The characters become clearer. The camera (in the filmed Netflix version) however, is distractingly shakey. Whatever effect they were going for ultimately fails.
Don’t expect any American Sun in this play. Outside the police station, even if it were day time, the stormy skies wouldn’t allow any light in. Instead, they set the scene with their thunderous cries and heavy teardrops.
Kendra can relate.