American Son by Christopher Demos-Brown

Black Lives Matter at Barrington Stage Company

By: - Jun 23, 2016

American Son
By Christopher Demos-Brown
Directed by Julianne Boyd
Scenic design, Brian Prather; Costumes, Sarah Jean Tosetti; Lighting Scott Pinkney; Sound, Brad Berridge
Cast: Tamara Tunie (Kendra Ellis Connor), Luke Smith (Officer Paul Larkin), Michael Hayden (Scott Connor), Andre Ware (Lieutenant John Stokes)
Boyd/ Quinson Main Stage
Barrington Stage Company
Pittsfield, Mass.
June 17 to July 9, 2016
Winner Laurents/ Hatcher Award for Best New Play, 2016

In racist America for young African American men there is no such thing as a routine traffic stop.

The award winning play by Christopher Demos-Brown, American Son, having its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company which commissioned it, is built on the theme that black lives matter.

It is the kind of message play that director Julianne Boyd regularly programs to interact with the community and the fall school curriculum. There is a schedule of programming related to this production.

After the summer opening the play returns in the fall with additional community programming.

With passion for this play and some risk taking Boyd has opted to lead the season with a powerful and provocative drama. A musical that normally opens, in this case Pirates of Penzance, has been slotted to follow.

Barrington’s usual strategy is to open with a popular musical and use the box office revenue to front-load funding for the rest of the season.

It is a bold move to reverse the order and bank on a strong drama, not the usual lighter fare, to entice a summer audience.

Doing so is a credit to Boyd and her belief that Barrington has built a loyal audience confident in her aesthetic leadership and commitment to taking chances. Based on the response last night, particularly to the explosive ending, the show justifies its leadoff spot.

The theme of a traffic stop gone terribly wrong has been well represented by television cop shows. How then to transfer ubiquitous content from TV to the stage?

The playwright has opted to let the incident unfold through the context of a mixed racial couple Kendra Ellis Connor (Tamara Tunie), a PhD in psychology and professor, and her recently separated FBI agent husband Scott Connor (Michael Hayden) anxiously awaiting news of the fate of their 18-year-old son Jamal.

He has recently graduated from an elite Miami school where he was but one of three black students. In response to perceived anguish and rejection by his white father the youth, who has been admitted to West Point, is going through an identity crisis.

This includes adopting gangsta gear, corn rows, rap slang and a bumper sticker that proclaims “Shoot Cops.”  It is attached to the expensive Lexus that his dad bought him as a graduation present.

When we took our seats and examined the stark cinder block interior of a police station (designed by Brian Prather) we noted a clock on the wall frozen at 4 AM. When the play began it started to convey the real time of a drama that unfolds in one 80 minute act.

The time factor is so precise that it conveys a miscue. We are informed by the rookie cop Paul (Luke Smith), doing a less than adequate job of providing information to an anxious mother, that Lieutenant Stokes (Andre Ware) who has authority to manage the case, will arrive at 6 AM. In fact his arrival was more like 4:30 AM.

The pace of the first hour of the play is a slow crawl. This interval is dominated by Tunie conveying complex and sharply executed shifts from anxious mom to stressed-out attack mode. It is revealed that she is brilliant and adroit at countering an uncommunicative officer while delivering zingers about racism.

When she asked for water, for example, Paul provides directions down the hall to two water fountains. She archly makes the most of this legacy of the Jim Crow South.

In the initial phase of the drama, both as a character and actor, Larkin is no match for the more accomplished Tunie. His stumbles into frustrated, ill considered, racist remarks are obvious and awkwardly played.

Her attack mode and deep resentment finds a better foil when a mostly defensive husband appears.

Because he is a rookie, and hasn’t met Lieutenant Stokes, Paul assumed that Connor is his superior officer. He blurts out a screed of facts that he had withheld from that “bitch.” Without revealing his identity Connor milks the rookie for information. He plays his FBI card even though it provides no actual authority in this instance.

Set against their mutual anxiety over the current status of their son the playwright uses this as an opportunity to explore the struggles of intermarriage. We come to wonder why they initially connected and how they overcame 20 years of tension and conflict. The point for Demos-Brown is that they didn’t.

In a poignant but aborted love scene there is a moment of reconciliation while they recount how they initially became a couple.

But the clock is ticking.

While the drama has been creeping along there is an explosive shift with the arrival of Lieutenant Stokes. Compared to the weak and wavering rookie Stokes, as played compellingly by Ware, is a large, authoritative, physically imposing black male.

Alone with Kendra he blunders by addressing her with the familiar term “sister.” She snaps back that she is not his “sister.” Through education and sweat equity she has moved up in the world. With brutal reality he insists on hammering home their commonality. Specifically, her motherly obligation to teach her son how to play by the rules in order to survive in white America.

The performance of Tunie was seasoned and nuanced. We labored through her mismatched confrontation with the outclassed Smith. This is an aspect of the production that would have improved with better casting. For the most part Hayden held his own with the dominating Tonie.

The  play exploded with the arrival of Ware’s officer Stokes. On ever level he took over the situation and completely dominated the final third of the play. Ware is an actor capable of shifting gears from overpowering to oddly tender, instructive and insightful. For a big guy he conducted himself with nuance and grace. This is an actor to keep an eye on.

Like the clock on the wall this play just ran out of time but will linger long in our hearts and minds. This is a play with legs and may prove to be an enduring classic.

During curtain calls and the richly deserved Standing O there were tears on the anguished face of Tunie. She was still in the moment of that gut wrenching finale. It was a heart felt expression of mourning for all of our American Sons.