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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
American Son

I'm the face of the race! — Kendra, quoting Jamal
Tamara Tunie as Kendra Ellis-Connor in the world premiere play American Son (photo credit: Scott Barrow)
Lights go up on a mundane institutional scene - a Miami-Dade police station at four o'clock in the morning. A woman sits, stands, paces and fusses with a smart phone making one unsuccessful call or text after another. Where is her son? Any parent watching this opening scene will immediately connect to the anguish and frustration that is inherent in waiting to hear from a not-quite adult eighteen-year-old who has disappeared.

Kendra Ellis-Connor (Tamara Tunie) has an extra level of anxiety. Her son Jamal, of an interracial marriage to Scott Connor (Michael Hayden,) is a young black man driving a Lexus who has failed to return home. No one in the audience who has not been asleep for the last decade can fail to understand the implication. In spite of the fact that Jamal is well-educated and headed for West Point, in this country people of color do not travel without trepidation.

It is obvious the police know something. But What?

The next ninety minutes of American Son by lawyer/playwright Christopher Demos-Brown will careen from angry confrontations and poignant love scenes to threatened violence and abysmal despair that arise at a speed designed to keep us as susceptible and off-balance as are the characters in the room.

Julianne Boyd's direction leaves us barely time enough to grapple with our thoughts between revelations as she interweaves the actors through a labyrinthine set of emotional situations. At times it is so realistic that the fourth wall seems to be erased. This is what the humans behind the endless looping of CNN news look like — not mere talking heads, but real live people, warts and all who are ensnared in a life-altering moment.

American Son addresses the ongoing issues of race, gender and class warfare which has a stranglehold on this country. Kendra, a beautiful, educated black woman and her white FBI agent husband are clearly well-off and ambitious for their son. They are also estranged and at odds over almost every decision made in their marriage. As they wait for the information they seek, which is less than forthcoming from the police, they bicker over details that serve to supply plenty of insight into the subtext of racial bias.

The police are also trapped by procedure and suspicion and on guard against any potential disrespect or impending violence by the parents, especially Kendra. Officer Paul Larkin (Luke Smith,) a bumbling, politically incorrect bureaucrat and wannabe FBI agent, is maddeningly circumspect in withholding information from the angst-filled mother; the liaison officer Lieutenant John Stokes (Adam Ware,) a no-nonsense tough guy of the streets, is terse and dismissive if not downright hostile. However, there are no bad or good guys in this room. Everyone has an Achilles heel and veils of preconceived bias amid surprising revelations.

At times those are delivered as diatribes rather than play dialogue which jars the compelling perfection of what could potentially be an even more dynamic examination of America's ongoing racial divide. The play contains some subplot distractions that could be diverting if not held together by a superb cast and director.

Tamara Tunie as Kendra is sublime. Her every facial expression, toe tap and head movement telegraph the deep well of feelings she attempts to control in the face of an unimaginable situation. She commands the stage at all times and it is her centrifugal force that sucks her and the cast along with us into a gravitational pit –an exposition of truth-telling from which there is no escape.

Michael Hayden as Jamal's father is appropriately outraged and thwarted by his impotence as a father and FBI agent to affect an impression on the police officers. Luke Smith's Paul Larkin adds comic relief as one impropriety after another escapes his lips in his attempts to placate the parents. Andre Ware as Lt. John Stokes is the penultimate no-nonsense, at times menacing, cop who is trying to avoid a potentially damaging situation through the use of force and threats, while struggling with his own anger and hidden agendas.

The set by Brian Prather is appropriately cinder block sterile – pictures of officers of the month, uncomfortable chairs, most wanted posters and doughnut boxes lend an air of unremitting futility.

Scott Pinckney's lighting has that unrelentingly appropriate glare always present in this place where no one ever wants to be and the news is never good. Costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti add the extra little oomph which underscores the stark realism of the play.

This is a penetrating show which attempts to probe and expose the decades of deep-seated discord. If the play itself does not provide enough for conversation, Barrington Stage is utilizing the production of American Son as a catalyst for future discussions about these themes of our tortured times. A series of symposiums will be held on:
Saturday, July 2
1:00-2:30 The Struggle of Growing up Bi-racial – Caught in the Middle
3:00-4:00 Driving While Black

Sunday July 3:
2:00-3:30 – Institutional Racism – Academic, Political and Legal

The play and seminars should be exported to every academic venue in this country in order to initiate dialogue, or will we, as W.H. Auden said, ", , ,rather be ruined than changed. . .

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American Son
By Christopher Demos-Brown
Director: Julianne Boyd
Cast: Tamara Tunie (Kendra Ellis-Connor) Michael Hayden (Scott Connor)Luke Smith (Officer Paul Larkin) Andre Ware (Lieutenant John Stokes)
Set Design: Brian Prather
Costume Design: Sara Jean Tosetti
Lighting Design: Scott Pinkney >BR > Sound Design: Brad Berridge
Stage Manager: Renee Lutz
Running Time: ninety minutes; no intermission
Barrington Stage Company, Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, North Street, Pittsfield, MA
From 6/17/16; opening 6/22/16; closing 7/9/16
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at 6/22/16 performance

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