Kerry Washington as Kendra, an African-American psychology professor, sits in a Miami, Florida police station as 4 a.m. with rain pouring down outside and occasional flashes of lightning. She is desperately trying to find out why her 18-year-old son, Jamal, has not come home, but she can get no answer from Jeremy Jordan as Officer Paul Larkin, who is on night duty and also trying to find out what happened in an incident that has yet to be fully reported but may involve Jamal. Kendra’s fury is rarely abated and we sympathize with her as a black mom who knows very well what can happen to a young black man.
Washington gives a totally riveting performance in Christopher Demos-Brown’s taut, intermission-less play that intensely builds toward its climax in real-time . It is sternly trying to depict a recurring problem in America, but spins the tale via dramatic portraits and confrontations rather than by sermonizing. Under Kenny Leon’s sizzling direction, this is an unrelieved, high-tension drama with a stalwart cast that never falters.
But the author, in order to make this a story, has added complexities that somewhat muddy the basic problem. With the arrival on the scene of Kendra’s estranged white husband, Scott, an FBI agent, we see that this has been an interracial marriage, and the play deals as well with dynamics in that fallen-apart relationship. Steven Pasquale as Scott gives a strong, feeling performance as a man who loves his son even though he has split with his embittered wife, who is further infuriated when Scott gets more respect from Officer Larkin, obviously because Scott is white and a man.
There is another twist when we learn that on the car he has been given as a graduation gift, Jamal, whom we never meet, has affixed a bumper sticker that says, “Shoot Cops.” Why wouldn’t police pull over a car with such a provocative, anti-cop sticker to question a black young man and his friends inside? What becomes somewhat weak in the play is Kendra’s contention that Jamal did that out of resentment against his FBI father for leaving home.
This mix of domestic trauma into the situation may broaden the story, but it takes the focus away from the atmosphere of terror that young African–American men face without riding around in a car with a provocative bumper sticker.
All of that said, the powerful performances by the cast prevail, especially that of Washington. When the fourth cast member, Eugene Lee, arrives on the scene as superior officer Lieutenant John Stokes, confrontations explode, and he eventually gets nearly the last word when he reads a report he has just received.
The fact that the program lists the day as taking place “this coming June” is the playwright’s intended indication that what we watch is not something relegated to the past or the moment, but will be happening again. “American Son” is a chilling play for now and in the future. At the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed November 22, 2018.