Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

American Son
George Street Playhouse
Review by Cameron Kelsall


John Bolger, Suzanne Douglas, and Mark Junek
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
One of the primary functions of theater is to comment on society. Art that is divorced from the culture in which it is created in ultimately empty and hollow, nothing more than passive entertainment. Yet few contemporary playwrights seem comfortable addressing the major issues of the day on stage. Thankfully, Christopher Demos-Brown, a Florida-based attorney and writer, has tackled one of the most difficult subjects we currently face in his compelling American Son, which is receiving its New Jersey premiere at George Street Playhouse.

The subject at hand is police brutality, especially as it pertains to young black men. The entirety of the play takes place in the claustrophobic waiting room of a Miami police station, as Kendra (Suzzanne Douglas) and Scott (John Bolger) try to ascertain the reasons why their 18-year-old son Jamal was booked while out driving in the expensive car they recently gave him as a birthday present. Being a trial attorney by trade—and thus very familiar with the carefully calculated obfuscation that law enforcement employ in situations like this—Demos-Brown expertly controls the slow drip of information the parents receive from Officer Larkin (Mark Junek), who seems by turns sympathetic and antagonistic.

Kendra is black and Scott white; Scott is also an FBI agent who identifies with the police officer who is just trying to do his job. This allows Demos-Brown to mine the already fraught situation for a deeper level of meaning. Kendra—who escaped a hardscrabble childhood to earn a PhD and become a professor at a prominent university—charges that Scott has never fully understood what it was like for her and their son to occupy public space as black people. Scott counters that Kendra—and, by degree, people of color in general—too easily use racial hardship as a crutch. Their long confrontation is tense and crackling, sharply illustrating that a white man who is married to a black woman and has a mixed-race son can still have major racial blind spots. We gradually learn that the couple are separated, and that Kendra resents that Scott is now romantically involved with a white woman.

Race is also skillfully used to illuminate the differences in perception between civilians and police. Kendra's interactions with Officer Larkin (who is white) are stilted and awkward; when Officer Larkin anecdotally mentions that the station has two water fountains side by side, a remnant of segregation-era construction, Kendra recoils. When Scott enters the waiting room, FBI badge pinned to his jacket pocket, Larkin mistakes him for a superior officer and starts ranting about the aggrieved black woman who went "from zero to ghetto" in record time. Later, Kendra faces off with a black lieutenant (the superb Mark Kenneth Smaltz) whose view of the black relationship to law enforcement is sharply different. Douglas and Smaltz seem to suck all the air out of the room in their forceful encounter; it is an often uncomfortable but necessary scene.

Not everything about American Son is perfect. The writing occasionally skirts perilously close to melodrama, and it could be argued that Demos-Brown (who is white) sometimes lapses into stereotypical speech for his black characters. The acting can be uneven, as well. Douglas is nothing short of astonishing, precisely projecting the intricate double consciousness that a black woman with her background and position has to live with. Bolger, unfortunately, is not always her equal. The character as written is prone to angry outbursts, which Bolger handles like the human incarnation of a pulsing neck vein. A little more subtlety would go a long way. Although Officer Larkin is meant to be somewhat clueless, Junek has a habit of taking this trait to the extreme, coming off like a modern-day Keystone Kop. And for some incomprehensible reason, the actors in this small theater all wear body microphones, which blasts the dialogue into the auditorium, often killing the intimacy so necessary for this play to work.

Despite these reservations, David Saint's taut production succeeds in bringing an important American story to the stage. Playwrights might fear that topicality may limit the longevity of their work, but we must remember that many of the theater's most enduring plays began their lives vitally connected to the events of their time. American Son joins this pantheon, shining a compelling light on a disturbingly familiar trend in our society.

American Son continues at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ, through Sunday, February 26, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.georgestreetplayhouse.org or by calling 732-246-7717.


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