By AARON KRAUSE
MIAMI –A black mother expresses a chilling, yet valid concern in American Son, Christopher Demos-Brown’s unflinchingly honest and heartbreaking play about race, set in present-day Miami.
The woman implies that what happened to Emmett Till in 1955 could happen to her teenage son today, 65 years later. The mother’s worry is not that far-fetched. Surely it’s a chilling reminder that despite the racial progress we’ve made in this country, we’re living during a time that’s increasingly resembling pre-Civil Rights America.
Demos-Brown’s taut, tense, timely, tragic and riveting play is receiving its Florida premiere in an engrossing, well-acted and directed, intimate Zoetic Stage production through Jan. 26.
Fittingly, one of the characters asks for black coffee. Indeed, although the play features sarcastic humor, Demos-Brown doesn’t sugar-coat the dark, yet painfully real truth about our racially-charged world. Furthermore, the playwright forces us to reckon with questions we might not have considered.
For instance, how should a mixed-race couple raise their son in such a hostile climate? Do they teach him to be proud and open about his identity? Or should they encourage him to hide behind corners? As he’s growing up, should they raise him to believe “the world’s full of goodness,” as this now-separated couple has? Or do they relate to him the ugly truth?
The parents in the play are not just separated, they’re divided — like so many other people and groups today.
Certainly, there’s plenty of friction in American Son. However, not all of the conflict takes the form of black people vs white people. Indeed, intra-racial disagreements also arise. Moreover, American Son isn’t just a play about race. It’s a multi-faceted piece, one in which marital, paternal, maternal, racial and civilian-law enforcement conflicts collide.
For a roughly 90-minute play, Demos-Brown has a lot to say and makes us ponder. However, the Miami-based playwright offers no answers; not that there are any.
Without taking sides or preaching, Demos-Brown writes with compassion toward African Americans as well as law enforcement, putting a human face on an often-demonized profession. And the playwright reminds us that not all officers are white and bigoted.
To his credit, Demos-Brown wastes little time in presenting the inciting incident: a black teenager named Jamal goes missing. His African-American mother, Kendra, is waiting at a Miami police station. Soon, his white father, Scott, arrives. Both are seeking answers as to whether their son is in custody as well as what exactly he did. But the couple only receive scant information from a white policeman, Officer Paul Larkin. The couple wait, argue, and plead for news. An intense, physical struggle ensues between one of the officers and Scott, who boils over with frustration.
While the couple may no longer be together, it’s obvious they still have feelings for each other. Scott, for instance, calls his ex “Kenny.” And, as the parents look back at their marriage, they realize that at least one person unites them: their beloved son. Surely, the tragic news at the end unites them even more.
Speaking of the teen, Demos-Brown describes the young man with enough detail that we can picture Jamal, even though we never see the 18-year-old. The playwright humanizes him. As a result, we never feel like Jamal is just “another statistic,” added to the litany of young black men whom the police have pulled over.
Director Stuart Meltzer, a co-founder of Zoetic Stage, carefully balances heated scenes with quieter, contemplative ones. The characters often speak over each other, which reinforces the urgency at hand and the highly tense atmosphere. Credit the quartet of performers with nailing Demos-Brown’s David Mamet-like dialogue. In addition, the actors, whose line readings always sound spontaneous, present multi-faceted performances.
As Kendra, Karen Stephens makes her character’s exasperation and frustration seem authentic. At times, Stephens expresses Kendra’s feelings forcefully, with a torrent of words tumbling out of her mouth. Still, it all sounds natural.
At other moments, Stephens’ Kendra tries to keep her emotions in check. We notice as she grinds her teeth, places her head in her hands and uses telling facial expressions which suggest Kendra is trying mightily to control herself.
Kendra, a psychology professor, chides her husband for speaking improperly. Curiously, though, she sometimes speaks improper English herself, and not always for effect. Further, her costume looks rather casual for a character that the playwright describes, in his script, as someone trying to “maintain a professional façade.”
Clive Cholerton, who plays Kendra’s FBI agent husband, sports a more formal costume. The performer lends Scott an aggressive and impulsive demeanor, particularly during his well-staged and executed struggle with police. Cholerton imparts a convincing gruff demeanor, while also credibly conveying a tender side to his character.
Meanwhile, Ryan Didato invests the young, green Officer Larkin with an affability and desire to help Kendra and Scott. Didato also endows Larkin with charm, wide-eyed ambition and a bit of exuberance. As the actor plays him, Larkin maintains that helpful demeanor as long as he can, until someone pushes him too far and he loses his temper.
Contrastingly, James Samuel Randolph is commanding and authoritative as the veteran, impatient, no-nonsense Lt. John Stokes. But Randolph also imbues his character with impressive nuance and injects stinging sarcasm into his line readings.
On the one hand, it makes sense that Stokes would deliver tragic news in a brusk, business-like manner. Such a character, if he were real, probably has delivered tragic news many times throughout his career. However, if Randolph paused for a few seconds before more deliberately delivering the news, it might add depth to his character.
As it is, scenic designers Natalie Taveras and Jodi Dellaventura’s depiction of a downtown Miami police station is stark and claustrophobic. With predominantly dark colors, the designers have rendered the room as though it were a cage. Towering, rectangularly-shaped windows, coupled with the darkness of night (Demos-Brown has set the play in the very early morning) lends the atmosphere a severe aura. Matt Corey’s foreboding music and sound effects, as well as Rebecca Montero’s stark lighting, reinforces this. So do sheets of rainwater cascading down the windows, together with claps of thunder. The rain, thunder and lightning also punctuate the tragedy.
Demos-Brown’s clever writing and sardonic humor help illustrate the characters’ social and educational divide. And he clearly shows us that despite the gains we’ve made, the U.S. has a lot of work to do in order to achieve true racial equality.
The play, with its surprising revelations and high tension, should keep audiences attentive throughout. It helps that there is no intermission; a break could interrupt the high drama and the flow.
American Son has come a long way. Its author developed the play at Zoetic Stage, a professional, regional theater, and surrounding places before it world-premiered at the renowned Barrington Stage in Massachusetts. The piece also received a Broadway production, becoming a “New York Times” “Critics Pick.” In addition, American Son premiered on Netflix.
While many productions throughout the world are planned, the play is now enjoying a reunion with the city in which it was born. American Son is a “play by Miami, for Miami and about Miami,” Demos-Brown writes in his program note. Although the piece is location-specific, it is universal and timely in its messages.
Surely, the hope is that, after they witness the play, audiences will do what they can to narrow the racial divide.
Zoetic Stage’s production of American Son continues through Jan. 26 in the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd. in downtown Miami. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call (305) 949-6722 or visit zoeticstage.org.