Kerry Washington and the Wasted Potential of ‘American Son’ on Broadway
Kerry Washington stars in a Broadway play about police racism and what being black means and it feels crass and manipulative. Plus: an excellent ‘Waiting for Godot.’
“Don’t cry Mama... it’s just God takin’ pictures of the rain.”
That’s what Jamal Connor, when he was a young boy, used to tell his mother Kendra Ellis-Connor (Kerry Washington) when lightning would flash across the night sky.
Kendra recalls this memory as the rain falls down in soft, drenching sheets and lightning breaks outside the windows of the Miami police station she is in at the opening of Christopher Demos-Brown’s play American Son, which opened on Broadway Sunday night.
Jamal is now 18 and missing, and Kendra wants to know where he is. It’s almost 4am in the morning; he’s been missing since 8pm.
It doesn’t look like a police station at first glance; this space, designed by Derek McLane, could be a spartan, swanky living room with modern furniture.
But then we see a police officer, Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan), and he isn’t helping much. It’s clear from his rudimentary questions about Kendra’s son that Officer Larkin, if not racist, has a simple, lazy mind steeped in stereotypes.
Kendra is also a black woman and a professor of psychology, and he is dismissive of her, her upset, her questions, her insistence on accountability, her very presence.
This play, directed with a stilted nerviness by Kenny Leon, is strangely locked in on itself. It is 90 minutes long, and rigidly stuck in the grooves it sets up right at the beginning. These grooves are vital and timely themes—racism, police brutality, and injustice—but American Son nullifies their impact through clunky storytelling and flat characterization.
It is a frustrating cul-de-sac of a play, stitched together from too many tragedies, too many news broadcasts, too many opinion pieces, with its characters coming up with views from different sides.
Kendra is understandably angry and potentially distraught; any mother would be. But Washington’s performance amounts to a near-90 minutes of shouting. The shouting may be more than plausible in the circumstances, but it makes for monotonous theatre and doesn't help connect Kendra to the audience, or give Washington a variegated emotional territory to occupy.
Washington's is a coiled, passionate performance. We feel every bit of her frustration and anger, but the play still feels as if it short-changes both character and actor.
Kendra's relationship with estranged white husband Scott (Steven Pasquale) feels implausible. She seems far too intelligent to have gotten together with someone so dismissive (as Scott seems) of the meaning and lived reality of being black and racism.
The two are estranged now (and he with a white woman, which hurts Kendra especially horribly, she says).
His return to be with her as this awful night unfolds is already a tense reconnection. The play interrogates his own race-related attitudes towards his son. As far as Scott is concerned, they have spent a fortune on Jamal’s education, so he wouldn’t get into the kinds of trouble with the police that “other” young black men do. Kendra’s eyes roll at his cluelessness, as do ours.
The play first spotlights the lazy racism of the police, and their equally sloppy and dismissive handling of black loved ones seeking their help.
Kendra insists to Larkin of Jamal, “He’s never so much as torn the tag off a new mattress, OK?” Jordan plays Larkin’s blank-faced stupidity and prejudice with an effective, apparently non-malign directness; Larkin wants to know about “street names,” scars and tattoos.
Larkin is nonplussed when Kenda summarizes her son thus: “Jamal’s sign is Taurus. With Virgo rising. He’s bashful and looks away when he smiles. He plays the guitar—especially likes blues and rock. Walks like a jock, but he can recite almost any Emily Dickinson poem.”
Larkin mixes up Dickens and Dickinson, and calls Jamal, Jerome; and then directs Kendra to the water fountains, a hangover from the days of segregation; and too late realizes his total insensitivity and sudden walking within a minefield.
Worse, when Scott walks in, Larkin assumes he is the senior detective, Stokes (he is wrong, Stokes is black, played by the excellent Eugene Lee), and starts trash-talking Kendra.
The play becomes even more frustratingly formulaic with Scott’s introduction, which really serves as more deferred padding before we find out what has happened to Jamal. It just doesn’t feel that Kendra and Scott were ever married; they have no chemistry and are opposed to one another from moment one.
Scott is essentially the bone-headed, entitled white guy that married the black woman. The more asshole-ish stuff he says, the more it seemed (to this critic anyway) utterly unlikely that he and Kendra would have gotten together in the first place. She would surely have rejected him pretty fast as soon as he opened his mouth.
He wanted to name Jamal something “less” black, like Aidan. “The last few times he’s stayed at my place, he’s looked like a goddamned gangster,” he says grumpily. This will not play well with his upcoming interview at West Point.
Of the privileged education Jamal has received, Scott says to Kendra, “You and I both worked hard to make it my world. We spent almost a quarter of a million dollars putting that kid through the best private schools in the city…He’s had every possible advantage.”
If that is true, then the missing jigsaw piece is why Kendra went along with this. It is never stated or chewed over. Instead, now she pushes back against her estranged husband’s suggestion that Jamal hanging out with other black kids is “taking a stupid risk.”
If this seems facile to her now, why did not seem facile for their marriage? How did she put up with this constant stream of white entitled drivel coming out of Scott’s mouth? What was Kendra’s own complicity, and has she only awoken from it now their marriage is over? That’s a fascinating personal question in this relationship, and it goes unasked by the play.
Also: why the hell did this marriage end? We never find out, except Scott puts it all on Kendra.
She says that she sometimes touches Jamal’s shoulder as he sleeps, worried for his safety, worried precisely for what is unfolding this very night. She names Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice.
It is discovered Jamal has had a sticker on the back of his car: “Shoot Cops with your phone whenever they make a bust.”
The issue is font sizes: “Shoot Cops” is way bigger than the other letters. Kendra tells Scott that Jamal, one of only three black students, feels like he is “the face of the race” at his posh school. Instances of race-related police brutality have been an “awakening” for him.
Scott begs her not to give the police a “lecture about Black Lives Matter.” Kendra says, rightly, the cops could do with it.
Kendra’s encounter with Stokes is the most intriguing of the play. She questions why she should be teaching her son to keep his mouth shut. Stokes says that’s exactly what she should be doing; it is the only way, when it comes to traffic stops, that black lives can be made safe. “Make sure he understands that for us, there ain’t no ‘American Dream,’” Stokes says. She calls Stokes an Uncle Tom.
It’s impossible to fully critique why American Son feels so manipulative and crass without talking about its ending.
No spoilers here, but that ending and the way the ending is phrased and treated (like a soap opera cliffhanger) instead of feeling real and raw, which I am sure was the intention, feels rushed and horribly exploitative. It struck this critic later that this ending is how the play may have more effectively begun from before peeling the layers away from this “American Son” and his parents’ marriage, and the police brutality and racism the play seeks to skewer and impeach.
As it is, we barely know Jamal, or Kendra and Scott, or anything deeper than the issue than we would do from a multi-voiced cable news panel, by the end. The play is both a waste of important material and its talented cast.
American Son is at the Booth Theatre, NYC, booking to January 27.
Waiting For Godot
Away from starry Broadway, there is a beautifully acted and directed production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot playing as part of the Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College.
This Druid theatre production, directed by Garry Hynes, makes as much sense as a first-time or experienced viewer of Godot could wish for. If you were fortunate enough to have recently seen Bill Irwin's masterclass in Beckett, this will be a bonus second vehicle of exploration and illumination.
Before expectations are unreasonably raised, no, you won’t find out who Godot is; you won’t find out what Vladimir (Marty Rea) and Estragon (Aaron Monaghan), or Didi and Gogo, are doing and why they are waiting.
But we wait with them and understand it, or delight in its perversity, and we see the push and pull of friendship, the push and pull of despair and hope, and the mystery of time and connection as their visitors appear.
There is Pozzo (a bumptious, menacing and absurd Roy Nolan), dragging along Lucky (Garrett Lombard) along on a rope; and there is Boy (Jaden Pace and Nathan Reid in different performances), who brings tentative news of the presence of Godot himself. Lombard delivers Lucky’s astonishing monologue as if a commentator for TV horse-racing.
The staging is as simple as other Godots you will have seen; a slightly sloping floor of roughened earth with a lone tree (leafless and then with leaves) and a back-screen of splotches and scoring to signify the continuation of blasted landscape, beautifully lit by James F. Ingalls (in oranges, purples and inky blue) in day and night).
Didi and Gogo contemplate suicide (but the tree is far too flimsy to bear their weight), the mystery of where they are and why they are there, and as they do they rise, fall, and tumble. They make each other laugh. They grate on each other. And they are inseparable, a forced intimacy that frustrates them both but they cannot contemplate giving it up.
Vladimir is the one keenest to keep spirits up, and Estragon more prone to questioning and edging closer to the void. They clown as Beckett intended with their hats, and they stoop, leap, sleep and arrange their bodies in echoing curves and shapes of the other; Rea and Monaghan are perfect Beckett conduits: puzzled, puzzling, clear, maddening, and beguiling.
Both Rea and Monaghan supply a clear distillation of Beckett’s complicated and sometimes impenetrable treatise on existential despair, and the comic weaponry necessary to stave it off for as long as possible. The audience watched in tellingly rapt silence.
Waiting for Godot is at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, until November 13.