Dayton Playhouse’s excellent local premiere of Christopher Demos-Brown’s 2018 drama “American Son” continues through Sunday, Sept. 26.
Directed by Tim Rezash, this intimate one-act, co-produced on Broadway by Jada Pinkett Smith, Dwyane Wade and Shonda Rhimes among others and adapted by Netflix in 2019 starring Kerry Washington, takes a brutally honest if preachy look at an interracial family in crisis. Inside a Miami police station on a rainy night, a mother fears for her only child’s safety having heard news of his involvement in a late-night traffic stop. As situations swell to a riveting breaking point, Demos-Brown addresses themes of racial profiling and racial identity in order to bring greater understanding to complex issues of class, racism, systemic bias, police-community relations, and the criminal legal system.
Here are five reasons to see this compelling play, which opens the Playhouse’s 63rd season.
1. Comprehending Jamal Connor
Wisely, Demos-Brown keeps titular Jamal Connor invisible and somewhat mysterious as his whereabouts grow suspenseful. Even so, descriptions are peppered throughout in order for the audience to make its own visualization. Ultimately, we come to realize Jamal is a bi-racial, 6-foot-2-inch, 18-year-old high school senior raised in Coral Gables who enjoys Van Halen and Emily Dickinson and has plans to become a commissioned officer at West Point. Furthermore, he has no arrest record and isn’t known by a street name or alias but wears his hair in cornrows, prefers baggy pants and drives his new Lexus with a questionable bumper sticker about cops. So, is this teenager a menace to society? Or is he merely a teenager going through a misunderstood phase? Jamal is intended to represent all of our sons but, in the end, it’s up to the audience to determine the specifics, including his motives.
2. Teresa Lynn shines as a mother in distress
In 2018, the Dayton Theatre Guild produced the local premiere of Steven Dietz’s serendipitous drama “This Random World.” Teresa Lynn was part of that outstanding experience as Bernadette, caregiver to elderly Scottie Ward (luminously portrayed by Jane McBride). She wonderfully returns to the stage navigating a sea of complex emotions as the concerned and terrified yet defiant Kendra. Although Kendra is at her wits end, Lynn astutely showcases different layers as the script veers from heavy drama to credible levity. Sharing most of her scenes opposite a believably conflicted Robert Brumberg as Kendra’s estranged husband Scott and an admirable Nathan Evans (a recent standout in the Playhouse FutureFest production of “Shylock the First”) as chatty rookie officer Paul Larkin, Lynn epitomizes the magnitude of being a strong Black woman contemplating the worst while clinging to the hope of a positive outcome.
3. Understanding the awakening
In one particularly poignant exchange, Kendra tells Scott why Jamal, a product of privilege and elite private schools, is suddenly experiencing an African-American awakening:
“Philando Castile and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice – every time it happens he feels the world close in on him a little… When these men get shot down he can feel their ghosts.”
As Jamal comes to terms with his identity and the treatment of Black men by the police, Demos-Brown effectively examines the fear Black parents feel whenever their children walk out the door. Will they return unharmed? Will they return at all? “Filming cops is all the defense some of these kids have,” Kendra says. Jamal’s awakening after years of experiencing pressure to be “the face of the race” is one of many thought-provoking moments.
4. Franklin Johnson tells it like it is
Late in the play, Franklin Johnson, in one of his best portrayals, arrives in full intimidating command as Lieutenant John Stokes attempting to assess the facts rather than feeding speculation. In a heated moment opposite Lynn, the terrific, calculating Johnson lays down the law with cool, authoritative ease, bringing harsh truths to light with stinging relevance.
5. An invitation for productive discussion
The Playhouse could have opened its season with a feel-good classic or a more box office-friendly option. Instead, they have challenged theatergoers as never before. “American Son” is just one testament to the power of theater to heighten discussion of African-American viewpoints in connection to social justice. Race is a delicate subject, but this gripping work deserves to be seen by a cross-generational base from high schoolers to civic groups and all points in between. After all, it serves as a catalyst to stir healthy, productive dialogue in post-George Floyd America. It’s not too late to have these difficult conversations. Let’s start talking.
HOW TO GO
What: “American Son”
Where: Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave., Dayton
When: Through Sept. 26; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: Call 937-424-8477 or visit daytonplayhouse.com
FYI: The play is performed in 85 minutes without intermission. Masks are required to attend the production.
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