Review: ‘American Son’ Puts Kerry Washington in a Maternal Nightmare

Review: ‘American Son’ Puts Kerry Washington in a Maternal Nightmare

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In jeans and tennis shoes, with her hair pulled back to highlight her weary, worried face, Ms. Washington trails no glamour from her seven seasons as the political fixer Olivia Pope on “Scandal.” Nor does she have any of Olivia’s finesse and power. All she has is a torrent of words, barely containing her rage at everything: at her son for slapping a provocative bumper sticker on his car, at her husband for leaving them, at the police for stonewalling her and at history itself.

For even as she speaks through Kendra’s specific experience in lines like “Everything’s coming apart,” Ms. Washington evokes a larger and longer disaster. No matter how you build your life to avoid it, her performance suggests, the day will come when your black son is in danger. Perhaps all of your decoys, all of your success, will make that day come more surely.

This is a despairing message in a despairing play, and it renders the actual plot almost secondary. Indeed, after the first few minutes we don’t learn much more about what’s happened to Jamal until the final curtain. In between, the dispensing of calibrated micro-doses of information can seem manipulative; much of it could as easily be revealed earlier.

But Mr. Demos-Brown, who is white, is interested in the procedural details only as a tensioning device. His real aim, evidently, is to shift the narrative about police and young black men from individual cases to universal feelings. It would be hard for any parent not to be harrowed by the terror both Kendra and Scott express, in their own ways, about the disappearance of their child. The play’s title clearly expresses that generalizing intention.

This puts enormous pressure on the production to keep the personal material in focus, lest the whole thing tip into polemics. Though I could quibble with some of the staging, which sometimes seems to get stuck behind furniture, this is the director Kenny Leon’s best work to date: incisive and breakneck. If the police station set by Derek McLane is a bit grand in scale, it fills the Booth nicely and emphasizes Kendra’s powerlessness. And for the first time I can recall, a thunderstorm recreated onstage actually seems like a thunderstorm instead of a comment.

The cast manages a similar feat of naturalism: These are big but nuanced performances. Mr. Pasquale, for once ideally cast, fully inhabits Scott’s contraption of a personality, easygoing for about an inch and chaotic underneath. (Listen, if you can, for his devastating last lines.) Mr. Jordan, naturally ingratiating onstage, smartly uses that ingratiation to suggest a character who has never had to dig any deeper. And as a police lieutenant who arrives near the end, Eugene Lee makes a powerful figure of a plot device.

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