By JAMES YEARA
“No!” someone cries out in the audience. Several people gasp at the same time. Soon the crying onstage is indistinguishable from the crying in the audience. A stillness pervades. The lights dim on a 20 count, then all is black. The ending of “American Son” is one of those too rare perfect moments in theatre when the humans on-stage meld psychically with the humans in the audience.
Commissioned by Barrington Stage Company, “American Son” is having its world premiere on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage in Pittsfield, and it is peerless. No mere polemic, “American Son” is multi-faceted, its humor as genuinely and believably acted as its pathos. Under the sure touch of BSC founder and artistic director Julianne Boyd, playwright Christopher Demos-Brown’s “American Son” will move audiences now and in the future as surely as the play did opening night.
Set in a City of Miami Police Station waiting room, present day, the play begins at 4:07 in the morning, according to the round clock on the wall behind the sergeant’s desk (the smart set by scenic designer Brian Prather seems to be cut from the police substation, cinder blocks outlining the two-walled room, the sharp perspective an apt metaphor for the play). A lone African-American woman sits alone in a chair in the center of the room, rocking a bit, then stands, paces, then makes phone calls to her teenage son. Soon her distress plays out: her 18-year-old son Jamal has taken off in his car and his name appears on a police “incident report.” The mother, Kendra Ellis-Connor (Tamara Tunie who fully inhabits the character), a psychology professor, frets, struts, rages, and weeps over the play’s 79-minute running time.
Her marriage to white FBI agent Scott Connor (Michael Hayden, equally fully committed to his character) is falling apart, her perfect West Point accepted son has found his bi-racial roots daunting, and the natural teenage rebellion takes on dangerous overtones: “he’s a Taurus rising, vegetarian who hates fried chicken and still has tears in his eyes over Bambi’s mother’s death” she screams in frustration to feckless Officer Paul Larkin (a humorous yet humane Luke Smith) trying to find out more details over her son’s “involvement in the police incident report.” “Help yourself to a donut… we really do like them,” Officer Larkin tells Kendra, police “protocol” yielding to a mother’s worry as he goes to shake out information from the system.
By the time Lieutenant John Stokes (Andre Ware, in full command of his power and willing to use it) tries to calm frantic mother and father, the play’s “Waiting for Jamal” roots have plunged all into an examination of their souls and our cultures that is searing. When the clock on the wall reads 5:26, the audience’s gasps and cries and exclamations are well deserved.
If you haven’t figured out that “American Son” doesn’t end happily, you don’t pay attention to the news. All lives do matter, but usually only black ones are especially endangered during routine traffic stops. “American Son” won’t be easy to forget, but it is worth the 79 minute investigation into America’s soul.